An accountant goes over some paperwork

Accountant vs. CPA: What's the Difference?

Many financial positions are difficult to separate because of their similarities. The line between two career paths can be very fine. The difference in an accountant and a certified public accountant (CPA), however, is quite clear, and essentially only a matter of certification. While all CPAs are also accountants, an accountant must undergo certain testing and licensing requirements to be able to claim the title of CPA.

What is an accountant?

Accounting is a lot of math and paperwork. An accountant may work for a company or provide service to individuals requiring assistance. They keep track of financial records, make sure these records are accurate, and may prepare taxes. It is not necessarily a requirement to have any sort of degree to be an accountant. Some positions require only that you be good with numbers and know how to use programs that do most of the work for you, like QuickBooks. They also only make about half of what a CPA makes in a year, with a median pay of $35,000.

What is a CPA?

CPAs, on the other hand, are very highly trained accountants with a specific education and certification requirements. In general, they must have at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting, along with passing a national examination for licensing provided by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Following this, most CPAs are required to complete an apprenticeship with an already-licensed CPA, and many states have additional prerequisites before an accountant can affix “certified public” to the beginning of their title. As with many professional certifications, continuing education is necessary to keep that certification.

All of this training comes with considerable advantages and opens up a lot more opportunities. A large part of their education involves becoming very closely acquainted with tax laws and codes. This means that as a CPA, you may perform audits and provide financial reviews, which may be necessary (especially for businesses) for things like acquiring loans.

CPAs are also qualified to provide financial planning assistance. Some even become specialized in certain fields. For example, forensic CPAs may work for the government and provide legal assistance by pouring over company records to find evidence of wrongdoing (or innocence) in regards to court cases. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for CPAs in 2012 was over $60,000 - a considerable jump from that of simply “accountant.”

What’s the Difference?

The differences between the two are quite clear. In deciding whether to be an accountant or a CPA, it is essential to consider your own professional goals. For someone who wishes to work in accounting, but only wants to complete the bare minimum of training, being a pure and simple accountant may be perfect. However, if you have or wish to have a degree and expand your job opportunities (not to mention up your salary) beyond record keeping and number tracking, the wide world of Certified Public Accountants may be calling to you.