CMA vs CPA – Which One is Better?

CMA vs CPA – Which One is Better?

Updated:September 18, 2018
Bryce Welker, CPA
cma versus cpaIn this article, Nathan Liao from the CMAcoach.com, compares the CMA vs the CPA including the key differences and advantages between the two designations. Have you asked yourself at some point whether the CMA or the CPA is the right certification for you? It absolutely crossed my mind many times before deciding to pursue a CMA license. But wait a minute.. I thought Bryce was a CPA?! Well, he is. I’m Nathan, a Corporate Controller by day, and a passionate CMA advocate by night. As a CMA, I get asked why I chose it over the CPA. I think that’s a fair question and would like to take this opportunity to respond. I think the best way I can explain it is by describing the various differences between the CMA and the CPA. Let’s start by understanding the differing requirements:
Exam CMA   CPA
How Many Parts? 2-part exam 4-part exam
Exam Fees $900 (may vary) $873.20 (may vary)
Exam Windows Jan, Feb, May, Jun, Sept, Oct Jan, Feb, Apr, May, Jul, Aug, Oct, Nov
Average Pass Rate for First-Timers 35% 46%
Continuing Education Requirements 30 hours/year about 40 hours/year depending on the state
Experience Requirements 2 years of financial management Varies by state; typically 1-2 years under supervision of licensed CPA
A few years ago, the CMA exam was also a four-part exam just like the CPA until the Institute of Management Accountants, or IMA, decided to combine them into two. This decision made the exams a lot harder since they cover so much more content. The fact that it went from a 4-part to a 2-part exam was a factor that helped me favor the CMA. Another reason was that I was working as a Corporate Controller prior to obtaining my CMA credential. This allowed me to fulfill the experience requirement for CMAs, which is to work in financial management for at least 2 consecutive years. If I had picked the CPA, I would have had to find another job where I could work under a CPA for a year or two. That option didn’t appeal to me. Lastly, I was not interested in learning about taxes or performing audits. However, I have colleagues who love working in both of those fields. The key in deciding which certification to go for is to know which areas in accounting or finance you can see yourself working in, but most importantly, enjoy working in.

CMA vs CPA Exam Content

Because the core differences of each designation are in different areas of accounting, the exam content is tailored to test these strengths. In short the CMA focuses on business analysis & strategy, as well as corporate financial management. The CPA focuses on taxes, compliance, financial reporting and audit.
CMA Exam Parts CPA Exam Sections
Part 1: Financial Planning, Performance and Control BEC: Business Environment & Concepts
Part 2: Financial Decision-Making FAR: Financial Accounting & Reporting
AUD: Audit & Attestation
REG: Regulation
Based on these core differences and the fact that I prefer to work in private accounting, the CMA made more sense for me personally. Since I was already working in management accounting, it was fitting to obtain the CMA versus the CPA.

CMA vs CPA Salary

There are factors such as job title, years of experience, industry, and age that have a direct impact on how much CPAs and CMAs earn. The chart below is by age group according to a 2011 salary survey conducted by the Institute of Management Accountants.
Age No CPA or CMA CMA CPA
19-29 $52,124 $59,812 $60,417
30-39 $79,246 $93,495 $85,052
40-49 $104,278 $118,553 $108,956
50-59 $104,072 $119,591 $120,777
60 and over $108,409 $106,334 $128,767
All $95,823 $111,037 $115,052
This chart can serve as a guideline and for reference. The take away is that obtaining a certification, either the CMA or CPA, is more advantageous financially than none at all.

CMA or CPA – What Certification is Best For Me?

This is the million-dollar question. Which designation is the best? The CMA or the CPA? The designation that is the best for you is the one that will take your career to where you want it to be. Take some time to ponder on this. Once you’ve figured that out, you’ll know which designation will get you there. Remember that the CPA’s core strengths are in taxes, compliance, reporting, and audit. The CMA’s are in business analysis, strategy, and corporate financial management. Which areas do you find the most interesting? If you prefer the CPA, Crush the CPA Exam is the most comprehensive and up-to-date resource online so you are in good hands. Bryce is the most helpful CPA I know and also has a great sense of humor. If you are interested in the CMA or would like to learn more about testing strategies and finding the best CMA study materials, please stop by www.CMACoach.com. I will help answer any questions and provide further information if you need it.

Final Thoughts

Whichever designation you choose (perhaps you’ll choose both), it will be one of the best investments you’ll ever make for yourself. Certified professionals command higher salaries, respect from peers, and are handpicked for promotions.  If you have any questions or just want to say what’s up and introduce yourself, please leave a comment below I’d love to hear from you! Nathan Liao, CMA

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45 Comments
  • Francisco
    Posted at 4 June, 2018 07:15 AM Reply

    Hi Nathan, Thank you for posting this information! I asked the same question just a few days ago, why do I want to be a CPA? I found out that they specialize in two areas of accounting that are less appealing to me than the others. I do want to say that I enjoy the business strategy and analysis area in accounting and I believe the CMA is the right option for me. I do want to do a little more research since there is a time commitment to becoming a CMA and I would like to make sure that this certification will help me with my future career plans. Thank you for providing this information! Please let me know if there is anyway that I can get more information about the CMA or if I can ask you a few questions about the certification process.

    • Kelsi
      Posted at 25 May, 2018 00:38 AM Reply

      I am getting a lot of push back from my partner and family because I'd like to go the CMA route over the CPA route. My interest is in business and business management, not so much audit/tax. Some of those giving me push back work as CPAs. I have been doing my due diligence to network in my area with management accountants, but unfortunately my network consists mostly of public accountants. I graduate this December with my Bachelors. I'm looking at making a decision here in the near future whether I take CMA in October or wait until the first opportunity next year. Any advice you can offer as I navigate the family relationships? And what about for the exam. I'm down to part time, just two classes this summer and three in the fall. I'd really appreciate any insight you might have for me.

      • Andre V
        Posted at 7 December, 2017 03:02 AM Reply

        Hi! I'd like to hear more about CMA as I am nearing my accounting master's graduation. Please email me any useful info that you might have for me.

        • Shirish
          Posted at 29 August, 2017 12:32 PM Reply

          Thank you for the Information shared. I would like to know more detailed about both Courses like 1. Eligibility 2. Procedure to Apply 3. Requirement for International Students (I am From India) 4. Exam Structures, Pattern 5. Fees (for International) 5. Frequency of Exam, Center of Examination 6. Scope of the Courses 7. Eligibility for Licence

          • shemarine4018
            Posted at 22 September, 2016 22:47 PM Reply

            I know that the CMA designation is globally recognized, but how about the CPA? After reading this assessment, I'm leaning towards CMA anyways, but I was curious since I eventually want to end up abroad.

            • BWelk
              Posted at 3 October, 2016 21:49 PM Reply

              Hi,The CPA isn't globally recognized like the CMA.Cheers,Bryce

            • Zebulun Omar Wideman
              Posted at 29 August, 2016 19:59 PM Reply

              Hey,I just started my journey in getting my Bachelors of Arts in Accounting and I wanted to see what steps I would need to take to ensure success in the future after completion. After reading your information on certification types and the core strengths of each; I have a better understanding of where I would like to be in the next 8 years, so thank you very much for the information you have provided.

              • Adnan Mohammed
                Posted at 13 March, 2016 12:41 PM Reply

                Hi Nathan,Feeling better after reading the above article. I am one among those millions who are still not sure to go with CPA or CMA.Your point 'CPA’s core strengths are in taxes, compliance, reporting, and audit. The CMA’s are in business analysis, strategy, and corporate financial management. Which areas do you find the most interesting?" has helped me nail down my choice.Thanks,Adnan

                • Dani
                  Posted at 13 January, 2016 20:36 PM Reply

                  Hi All - I have a CPA license and MBA but have been itching to get another certification. I think the highlights of the CMA are very interesting and would like to learn the material regardless. Is it a waste to pursue the CMA? Is all of the material covered by the CMA already covered by the CPA exam? Any thoughts help!!! Thank you!

                  • Don
                    Posted at 14 November, 2015 18:08 PM Reply

                    Forgot to mention. CPA = License issued by the State Board, very powerful.CMA = certification, issued by an association. That's why I said, it is better to have both License and certification in addition to MBA. One will never be unemployed, can get into Big 4, or Manufacturing, or services, or own office, or teaching, college, govt job, one can land anywhere. All the best folks.

                    • Don
                      Posted at 14 November, 2015 18:02 PM Reply

                      Several of my friends with CMA alone suffered during massive layoffs where as friend with CPA were able to find jobs very easily. That said, friend with both certifications were the absolute winners! I have MBA in additions to these; therefore I am still on job, never been laid off for the last 30 years. God Bless everyone who reads this.

                      • Don
                        Posted at 14 November, 2015 17:59 PM Reply

                        CMA is good for manufacturing organization, but big 4 prefer CPA. That said, overall CPA is more desired in accounting / finance sector rather than CMA. It is better to have both certifications. Having just CMA will limit your opportunities.

                        • Jose Sibaja
                          Posted at 20 April, 2015 14:15 PM Reply

                          Nathan,Your comments were very helpful as I am in the dilemma to decided which route to take. At the moment I am an auditor who work with compliance in my organization yet, I want to make that next jump and move into banking. Of course, I was asked if I am looking to obtain my CPA since I am aiming for a compliance officer position. Any thoughts you can give me on this?

                          • Neil
                            Posted at 25 March, 2015 03:24 AM Reply

                            Greetings,I plan to go for the CPA license and I am thinking about eventually landing an internship with Ernst & Young or PwC, both which have connections with the university I will be transferring to in Fall 2016. I am currently a student at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, a 2-year campus from which I will transfer to a 4-year institution. I was wondering what exactly would EY and PwC look for in their interns. Also, I was wondering if I ever decided to reside in another state outside of Wisconsin could the license be able to transfer, and how exactly does the transferring work? Thank you in advance for your response.

                            • PwC Employee
                              Posted at 20 April, 2015 14:51 PM Reply

                              Big 4 Accounting firms look for interns who will be eligible to sit for the CPA exam. They don't care about the CMA, as they are public accounting firms.If you're in the UW system I'd recommended transferring to UW-Madison or Milwaukee. I have friends from both that have been successful in the public acocunting world.

                              • danielgolus
                                Posted at 4 January, 2017 02:45 AM Reply

                                True, public accounting firms don't give a whit about the CMA. Many career public accounting people don't even know what the CMA is.

                            • Ali
                              Posted at 7 March, 2015 20:07 PM Reply

                              Hi, I'm a US citizen living in Saudi Arabia. I've only graduated high school. I have no experience whatsoever. I'm planning on getting tutored for the CMA certification next. According to the tutor, it's manageable cause he believes that he can wrap it up in 1 year. I wanted your advice on what I should get done before starting the certification if there's anything needed. The tutor has impressive credentials and is recommended by a very reliable source that I trust completely. Just needed some insight from someone like you just so I'm content that I'm going on the right track. I'm already 27 years of age and had no time in between to further my education. This is my opportunity to make it big and kick ass. I have all the resourceful contacts on cloud nine to point me in the right direction after I'm done with this certification. 😊 Please guide me and tell me what approach would be feasible for me to adopt in my situation. Thank you.

                              • BWelk
                                Posted at 8 March, 2015 01:02 AM Reply

                                Hi Ali,You should email [email protected] about this question, he is the one who wrote this article and can help you out.Cheers,Bryce

                              • Christa
                                Posted at 26 February, 2015 21:31 PM Reply

                                I am currently working as the finanial controller and office manager for an automotive group. I am in my first year of training. I worked previously as an English teacher for 7 years. I have zero experience in accounting or the field I am currently in; however,my employer has decided to take a chance on my ability to learn quickly. After two years, can I take the CMA exam?

                                • Curtis
                                  Posted at 2 December, 2014 17:59 PM Reply

                                  Wait does the work experience requirement for CMA have to be a controller? Can staff accountants satisfy it? Then is utterly pointless for recent college graduates as they can't even secure a controller position anyways

                                  • Ideree Gurbazar
                                    Posted at 17 September, 2014 13:12 PM Reply

                                    Isn't it enough to meet experience requirement for CPA working as a Corporate Controller?

                                    • psu alum
                                      Posted at 8 September, 2014 01:06 AM Reply

                                      Nathan, I am a 49 year old female with a BS in Mgmt. I worked in retail mgmt for 10 years and have been with my current employer for almost 17 years as a Service Mgr and District Manager. I am researching the cpa and cma. Given my age and experience I'm leaning towards an accounting certificate leading me to a cpa. Just wondered what your advice would be. Thank you!

                                      • This guy again
                                        Posted at 19 August, 2014 16:52 PM Reply

                                        Anybody can learn management skills during their working life, but learning compliance, audit, and reporting are much harder on your own. There are so many intricacies and requirements in those areas that it actually requires experience, testing and real life training. Management of people is something that is learned through experience....one vote for CPA!!!

                                        • Dan
                                          Posted at 23 July, 2014 17:59 PM Reply

                                          I am a recent archtiecture graduate but currently work for a financial company and have been here for 5 years now. I cant get a job in the field that i am passionate about and since my current company will pay for any licenses and certifications, I am highly considering getting something. Either doing an MBA, or becoming a CPA or CMA...I dont know where these will lead me to or what i can do with them, but i just feel like i should take advantage of the opportunity. I WOULD LOVE TO HEAR SOME OF YOUR OPINIONS PLEASE :)