CMA Vs. CPA - Which Certification is Right For You?

Are you wondering what is CMA vs. CPA? Which is better to choose? In this article, we compare both based on their cost, difficulty, salaries, careers, and more.

TCM Staff

21st October 2020

Let’s answer the question that most Accounting students have in their minds, Choosing between CMA and CPA 

CMA and CPA have one main difference that leads to completely different professional roles. If you are good with Taxation, Auditing, and Accounting and are one of the 20% who wants to join the public enterprise then you should go for CPA but if you want to join the Private enterprise and work as an Internal auditor or Management Accountant then you should go for CMA.

First, let’s take a look at what CMA and CPA are, and then we’ll help you make a choice by comparing the two to the core.

What is CMA?

CMA stands for Certified Management Accountant as the name suggests is a combination of both financial accounting and strategic management. 

If you think making decisions about the finances based on strategic management is your cup of tea then this is just for you because this is the place where having great financial skills along with natural management skills comes in handy.

To become a CMA you need two-year working experience in the field of financial or managerial accounting and hold a Bachelor's degree in accounting or a business-related field. You will have to sit for 2 examinations that are 4 hours long which trust me is easy when compared to CPA’s 14-hour-long exam. The subjects that you’ll study are a combination of Management and Finance such as Performance Management, Corporate Finance, and Risk Management.

Certified Management Accountant license is offered by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA). Learn more on What is Certified Management Accountant (CMA) 

What is CPA?

CPA stands for Certified Public Accountant is licensed which means that you have the authority to make money as a public accountant. CPA’s have a vast knowledge of Accounting, Auditing, and Taxation and can do very well in places such a consulting firm or regional or local firms as an accountant or financial advisor. 

The CPA examination is administered by the AICPA and the examination. It takes a lot of effort to complete this exam, as this exam lasts for 14 hours the exam. The subjects that you'll be studying are Auditing and Attestation, Financial Accounting and Reporting, Regulation, and Business Environment Concept and to pass you need a score of 75 and above.

The requirements for the CPA examination are to be at least 18 years old with at least a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting or a similar concentration, you also need 2 years of full-time work experience. Get more info on Certified Public Accountant

Now that we have our basics sorted let’s dive in and put CPA and CMA to the ultimate test.

CMA vs CPA: What's the Difference?

1. Certification Required

For CMA, it is approved and sponsored by the Institute of Certified Management Accountants (ICMA). ICMA is affiliated by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA). ICMA has more than 40,000 members in 100 countries.

For CPA, it is organized by the American Institute of CPAs. But the licensing authority is of the Board of Accountancy of the particular state you pass out from.

2. Exam Levels 

In CMA, the exam is divided into 2 parts. The first part is about Financial Reporting, Planning, Performance, and Control. The second part is about financial decision making.

In CPA,  the exam is divided into 4 parts that last for 14 hours.

3. Prerequisites for the course

For CMA, you need a Bachelor's degree in Accounting, Management, or any other field related to CMA and you need 2 years of working experience in a financial or management related field.  

For CPA, you need 150 credit hours of undergraduate education and 2 years of full-time work experience in the Accounting field.

4. Course Concentration

The CMA exam is divided into two parts.

Part one

  • External Financial Reporting Decision

  • Planning, Budgeting, and Forecasting

  • Performance Management

  • Cost Management

  • Internal Controls 

Part two

  • Financial Statement Analysis

  • Corporate Finance

  • Decision Analysis

  • Risk Management

  • Investment Decisions

  • Professional Ethics


  • Auditing and Attestation (AUD)

  • Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)

  • Regulation (REG)

  • Business Environment Concept (BEC)

5. Pass Percentage

40% of the students passed part 1 and 50% of the students passed part 2 , in CMA


 AUD = 52.12%, BEC = 58.93%, FAR = 46.97%, REG = 55.17%

6. Job titles 

For CMA, the most common Job titles are :

  • Financial Accountant

  • Financial Risk Manager

  • Management Consulting

For CPA, the most common Job titles are :

  • Public Accountant

  • Internal auditor

  • Management Accountant

7. Average Salary

The average salary for those that pursue CMA ranges between $40,000 to $70,000.

The average salary for those that pursue CPA ranges from $50,000 to $80,000

Difficulty levels of CMA and CPA

CMA Difficulty Level

The exam structure for the CMA exam is divided into 2 parts of four hours exams that comprise of 100 multiple choice questions two 30 minute essays.

Looking at the pass percentage where only 40% to 50% clear the exam you can see that it’s not easy to clear the exam. The main reason why people don’t pass the examination is because of the amount of material that the person has to study but the practical experience that you get from working for 2 years as a prerequisite makes it a little easy to clear the exam.

You need a bachelor's degree or a professional degree that will require around 4 years and 2 years of working experience, and then you get 3 years time to clear both parts of the exam so it can take you around 8 years to become a CMA right from earning your undergraduate degree. 

CPA Difficulty Level

If you look at CPA it will also take around 8 years as you need 150 college credits and 2 years of full-time work experience. Most Bachelor’s degree has just 120 credits so for the rest 30 credits students continue their studies to the Masters level or take up a certification course taking not just a lot of effort but time.

CPA is not so easy either with a pass rate below 60% and the format including Multiple choice questions, written questions, and task-based stimulation there is a lot to study.

The toughest section out of the four is Financial Accounting and Reporting as the pass percentage is only 46.97% but by having good test-taking skills, A LOT of preparation, taking a course, going through the blueprint, and taking sample tests for your practice you can clear the exam.

The total cost difference between CMA and CPA

Even though soon you’ll be earning a lot of money through your chosen Accounting credential you need to see how much you’ll be investing in your future. Here’s a breakdown of everything that you’ll need to spend from studying to gaining your license for CMA and CPA. 


  1. A good preparation course will cost you around $2,000, some students choose not to use one but we recommend that you use it because of mn3.03.

  2. students who have used it actually find it very useful and pass the exam sooner.

  3. The application fee will cost $190 (only for first-time applicants).

  4. Exam fees cost $208.40 per subject so $833 for all four subjects.

  5. Registration fees cost $115 per subject.

  6. The ethics exam is required for the people of Minnesota which costs $169. For members of AICPA, it will cost $129.

  7. The licensing fees will cost you from $50 to $500 depending on the state.

  8. For continuing your education (CPE) in CPA you will need more or less $1,000 per year.

After adding the total cost will approximately be $2,500 + CPE costs every year.


  1. First, you will have to pay the annual Annual IMA membership fees which will be different for everyone. A working professional will have to pay $245 whereas a student will only have to pay $39.

  2. CMA program entrance cost ranges between $188 to $250 depending on whether you’re studying or working.

  3. CMA exam fees also differ depending on when you choose to take the exam. They range from $311 to $415 per section, hence $622 or $830 for both the sections.

  4. If you choose to use a preparation course to prepare for the exam it will cost you around $1,000.

  5. CMA requires 30 hours of continuing education per year which will cost you around $400.   

The total cost will be around $1950 + continuing education costs.

After looking at the data we can see that CMA will cost you less but the total cost differs depending on whether you’re a student, where you live, and/or if you repeat any exams.

Salary difference between CMA and CPA 

Let’s answer the question that most of you have in your mind: How much do CMA and CPA make? 

The answer to that varies depending on your experience and what skills that you learned while studying for CMA or CPA can you practically use in your workplace but on an average CMA gets paid between $40,000 to $70,000 and CPA on an average gets paid between $50,000 to $80,000.

Even though CPA gets paid more don’t make your choice according to that because if you are happy doing something that you love then you will do it better which will earn you more money than by doing something that you are not content doing.

What can you do with a CMA and a CPA?

With a CMA certification, there are a wide variety of things that you can do. Anything that is remoting close to Management or Accounting you can make a living off of. Most of the CMAs work in the private sector in positions such as a Financial Manager, Investment Manager, Performance Manager, and in areas of Planning and Budgeting. CMA gets paid more by 67% than people in accounting that don't hold a CMA certification so if you think about it it’s not so bad going through all the effort to become a CMA.

CPAs usually work in the public sector as a Public Accountant, Tax Accounting, Internal Auditing, and Financial Analysis. There are other several places that you can work in as the demand for CPA is rising every day and the salaries of CPAs have also gone up drastically because of the increasing demand that also gives you job stability. So


At the end of the day, we can’t really tell which certification is better but it’s not about which certification is better it's about which one fits you better.

If you see the facts one may be easier or earn you more money but personally, it is different for everyone so it’s important to match your skills with your interest. 

If you are good at managing and accounting both then CMA is a perfect match for you but if you want to go for something that is more popular and in want to work in the public industry then you should go for CPA but if you still can’t decide you can do both CMA and CPA and work where both your Management skills as well as your excellent taxation skills will come in the picture.

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