Is The CMA Designation Worth It?

By Amy Fontinelle AAA

The Certified Management Accountant (CMA) professional credential, offered by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), is the certification to get if you're in the management accounting profession. While you don't have to become a CMA to work as a management accountant, more than 30,000 people have chosen to do so since the program's inception in 1972, and you might want to as well. In this article, we'll take a look at what four CMA holders have to say about the designation's benefits.
 
Why Become a CMA?
The professionals we interviewed all said they pursued the CMA credential for career advancement.
 
"I decided to go after my CMA because I felt that the CPA left some gap in the trade skills that I needed to have to continue my career in industry," says Ben Mulling, CFO of TENTE Casters, Inc., in Hebron, Ky. Mulling is a member of IMA's Global Board of Directors and also holds the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP) designations.
 
Lon Searle, CFO of YESCO Franchising LLC in Salt Lake City, Utah, said he decided to become a CMA because he knew he would be promoted to CFO someday and he wanted to be prepared to be a world-class financial leader.
 
Steve Kuchen, a member of the IMA's Small Business Financial and Regulatory Affairs Committee, says, "After leaving a job, I went to a search firm specializing in finance and accounting professionals and the recruiter really impressed upon me how important it was to have some credentials after my name. He thought that the CMA would be just right based on my prior experiences and interests."
 
Financial Cost
Earning your CMA has the following financial costs:

  • Annual IMA membership fees are $39 to $230 depending on whether you are a student, academic, young professional or professional. 
  • CMA program entrance costs $225, but student or academic IMA members are eligible for a $150 discount.
  • CMA exam fees are $300 or $350 per part, depending on how you register and when you take the exams, for a total of $600 or $700.
  • The ongoing annual CMA maintenance fee is $30. 

You may spend additional money on test-prep materials, such as $470 for an online self-study course or $1,110 for an online self-study course plus textbooks and access to an online test bank. Finally, some continuing professional education (CPE) materials and activities cost money, but there are also options to earn CPE credits for free.
 
Time Commitment
Earning your CMA requires a significant time commitment. You have to meet requirements for education and work experience. You'll also need to study for and pass two exams, which you're allowed a maximum of three years from program entry to complete. Once you become a CMA, you must complete 30 hours of continuing professional education annually. But just how much time does the program actually take if you already have a bachelor's degree and the two years of required work experience?
 
Mulling says the CMA process took him about 12 months, including study time and exams. He earned his CMA in 2008.
 
For Searle, who also became a CMA in 2008, it was a longer process. "For two years, I spent an average of four hours a week studying for the CMA exam," he says. "I listened to CDs during my commute and studied online using practice tests." The effort paid off: "I used skills and knowledge I acquired during my studies in my position at work almost immediately," he says.
 
Susan E. Bos, tax and accounting manager for the Washtenaw County, Mich., treasurer's office and a member of the IMA's Global Board of Directors, says it took her about a year and a half to study for the CMA exam. "I already had the work experience and had already passed the CPA exam, which gave me credit for one of the four parts," she says. The exam had a four-part program when she earned her designation, in 1996. Bos is also a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE).
 
Kuchen also earned his CMA in 1996, when the four-part exam was in place. It took him about 18 months to earn the credential because of other demands on his time and because he had been out of school for a few years when he began pursuing the designation.
 
Passing the Exam
Given the time and expense involved in preparing for the exams, you'll want to do your best to pass on the first try.
 
"My advice is to set a study schedule and stick to it religiously. Plan out your week and achievement markers and commit yourself to keeping those goals," Mulling says.
 
Kuchen says he initially took an in-person study class at a local college. The class helped him "immensely," he says. It got him back into the flow of studying and, because it was taught by professionals who had experience grading the CMA exam, he learned what graders were looking for in the open-ended question parts of the test. "After that, I used a private company's self-guided software study program, which also helped me a great deal," he says.
 
"Apply the principles in your career and find opportunities to use new skills," says Searle. "This will make you comfortable with the principles and familiar with applying them in different situations." Searle also says he listened to the audio lessons several times until they were very familiar, because he learns best from audio or classroom instruction.
 
Bos says she used the Gleim books. She did every multiple choice question and went over every essay question. She also took a one-day review class through her local IMA chapter. "If you prepare well, you will pass," she says.
 
Repetition in your study time is a major key to success, Mulling adds. "Keep reviewing previous-chapter and multiple-choice questions over and over," he says. "If you stay on track with your study schedule, you should do fine."
 
Job Opportunities, Career Advancement and Earning Potential
Searle says the CMA certification provides a very large advantage in the job market. There are jobs that require either a CPA or CMA designation, he says.
 
Mulling says the CMA credential has "tremendously" helped him in his career. "It provided me with critical decision-support skills that I have used to advance my career to CFO of my company," he says. Even with his CPA license, he says he could not have succeeded in guiding his company through the recession and back into growth mode without the skills he mastered as a CMA.
 
Bos says earning the CMA designation gave her credibility and confidence. "I was already working as an accountant for several years, but the CMA gave me more visibility," she says.
 
Like Mulling and Bos, Searle says the CMA has added value to his career. "I have used the knowledge gained during my studies for the exam in all areas of my job as a CFO including strategic planning, coaching staff, marketing, financial analysis, decision making and banking. It was a much more applicable educational experience than studying for and passing the CPA exam," he says.
 
Kuchen says attaining the CMA shows that you are serious about your career and interested in improving your skill set. He also says the CMA material is very relevant to real-world situations you might encounter, not only in finance and accounting, but also in other disciplines like information technology.
 
Finally, the IMA's most recent annual survey of its members found that CMAs earn nearly $27,000 more in total compensation than non-CMAs.
 
The Bottom Line
Becoming a CMA involves a commitment of money and, most of all, time that shouldn't be taken lightly. But if you want to pursue a career as a management accountant, the extra effort can pay off.

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