A CPA salary usually reaches the high five figures, and senior CPAs in management can earn a six-figure salary. So, if you are a college graduate with a bachelor's degree in finance or accounting, or an entry-level accountant seeking a higher salary and more work responsibilities, you may want to consider obtaining a certified public account designation.

If you are an accountant, you'll find a CPA salary is higher, and this designation will enhance your role. Holding a CPA license opens doors to various and well-paying careers. Obtaining a CPA license (and a CPA salary) requires a significant investment of time and energy, not to mention requires committing to continuing education, so it's critical to understand the potential pay-off before pursuing it.

CPAs work in distinct areas such as forensic accounting, tax preparation, auditing, booking, and information technology in the private and public sectors, or for the federal government. With the right amount of experience, being a CPA can mean an eventual position as a chief financial officer or a highly paid tax accountant.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not break out CPA salaries from its reporting on accountants and auditors, but the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) reports that a CPA usually earns more. For reference, the median accountant's salary in May 2019, the most recent figures as of January 2021, is $71,550.

Key Takeaways

  • In order to become a licensed CPA, you must complete an exam, plus meet your state's educational and experience requirements.
  • CPAs work in areas such as forensic accounting, tax preparation, auditing, booking, and information technology, or even for the federal government
  • Certified public accountants make more money than accountants without the CPA designation.
  • Most CPAs must earn a bachelor's degree or even a master's degree to move up the corporate ladder. 
  • Experienced CPAs can earn in the mid-to-high six figures, especially if they end up in a management or leadership position. 

Accounting vs. CPA Careers

While all CPAs are accountants, not all accountants are CPAs, and it is easier to become an accountant than a CPA. According to the AICA, which administers and scores the test, most states allow anyone to hold an accountant's title. Meanwhile, to be granted a license, CPAs must meet "educational, experience, and ethical requirements," along with passing the Uniform CPA exam.

If you want to become a CPA you are required to pass the Uniform CPA Examination in order to qualify for a permit to practice. Each state has its own set of requirements regarding education and experience, but the CPA examination is the same in every state.

Candidates must complete 150 semester hours of education, as well as any other specific state requirements. Depending on the program you choose, this entails having an undergraduate degree, some graduate courses, or a master's degree in accounting or an MBA with an accounting concentration.

At the end of the day, companies value the higher standard to which CPAs are held. Once licensed, CPAs are the only individuals who can complete the required audits at public companies.

They are generally more educated than their peers due to the stringent requirements of the CPA designation. With that in mind, broad accounting salaries are misleading. An important difference between an average accountant and a CPA is that only the latter can write-up an audited financial statement. This is an important reason why CPAs are in-demand at large companies that need to provide audited statements.

Certified public accountants can find work within international financial firms or the government and typically will earn more than an accountant without the designation.

Fast Fact

The BLS estimates that jobs in the accounting sector are projected to grow 4% from 2019 to 2029.

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median U.S. salary for accountants and auditors in May 2019 (the available data as of January 2021) was $71,550. individuals in the lowest 10% of the range earned $44,480, and those in the highest 10% earned $124,450.

That's a huge range because the title "accountant" broadly covers individuals at varying levels of responsibilities. Typically, the senior accountants and auditors with high levels of responsibility are CPAs. Given that they take on a higher level of responsibilities, CPAs are generally on the higher end of this salary range. CPAs may have more flexibility than their peers given the cyclical nature of their jobs (i.e., some times of the year are busier than others), according to the American Institute of CPAs.

Accounting Salary Ranges

There is a wide range of jobs and salaries for people working in accounting without a CPA designation.

Bookkeeping, Tax Preparation, and Payroll Services

In May 2019 (the most recent figures as of January 2021), the median annual wage for accountants working in the areas of bookkeeping, tax preparation, and payroll services, was $74,060, according to the BLS.

Insurance Companies and Finance

General services accounting for insurance companies and finance-focused businesses pay their accountants well. Again, using the same BLS data as above, the median annual wage is slightly higher than those who work in tax preparation at $76,440.

Government Jobs

Accounting positions for the government bring in a lucrative median annual salary at $70.180. Roughly 8% of all accountants and auditors worked for the government as of May 2019.

Junior Tax Associate/Accountant

Many accounting graduates can find immediate work working as a junior tax associate or accountant. Tax-related fields can provide a stepping stone to more lucrative jobs. A junior tax associate will need to know about federal, state, and local tax regulations and how to prepare tax returns and other tax-related documents on behalf of individuals or companies. According to the BLS, the annual median salary was $54,890 in May 2019, as per Jan. 16, 2021, the most recent figures available.

Most accountant and auditor positions, including the ones listed above, require at the very least a bachelor's degree from an accredited college in finance or accounting. Some jobs will require a master's degree in business administration or accounting, as well.

CPA Salary Ranges

Since most people pursue a CPA to take on additional responsibilities and management positions, their salaries will dwarf the average of most accounting graduates. Looking at data from all job postings on the job board, Indeed, that includes "CPA," showed an average (entry-level) CPA salary of $66,915 in 2020.

However, according to Accounting Today magazine and the AICPA, senior-level CPAs can earn upwards of $150,000. And the experience and education it takes to become a CPA can lead to other job opportunities, like becoming a company comptroller or certified financial officer.

Entry-Level CPA

According to Accounting Today magazine, a leading trade publication, entry-level CPAs make on average anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000, depending on the size of the company.

Senior-Level CPA

A CPA with over five years under their belt may make $66,000 to $110,000, depending on their experience.

Manager or Director with a CPA

According to Accounting Today's reporting, CPAs who go onto a position within management or a director's title often earn between $66,000 and $150,000. Other senior jobs for experienced CPAs are roles in executive management, which can command six-figure salaries. According to the BLS, the median salary for chief executives was $184,460 as of May 2019.

What is the Average CPA Salary by State?

Like most professional jobs, your salary may be informed by where you work, and CPAs are no exception. Employment opportunities vary as well, depending on the kind of accounting specialization.

According to the BLS, Texas, California, New York, Florida, and Illinois are the states with the highest employment for accountants and the highest salaries in the U.S. Keep in mind, these figures reflect accountant salaries, as the BLS doesn't break down accountant jobs by CPA vs. regular accountant.

The mean average wage in each state is as follows: California ($83,910), Texas ($79,360), New York ($89,650), Florida ($72,630), and Illinois ($77,640). The photo below is from the BLS. May 2019.

BLS Accountants and Auditors

CPA Salary FAQs

How Much Does a CPA Make in a Year?

It depends on where you live and work. A CPA in New York could make over $90,000, but a junior accountant might only make a median salary under $55,000.

Do CPAs Make Six Figures?

Usually, senior CPAs in management positions. Most CPAs earn in the high five figures.

How Much Do CPAs Make at the Big 4?

The "Big Four" refers to the four largest accounting firms in the U.S., according to their revenue. These four are Deloitte, Ernst & Young (EY), PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), and Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler (KPMG).

All four companies offer tax and management consulting, legal advisory services, valuation, market research, and assurance. According to Corporate Financial Institue, the entry-level accounting salaries for all four firms start at approximately $45,000. An accountant in a managerial position begins at around $100,000, and an accountant senior manager could make as much as $180,000. The companies do not specify which positions are held by CPAs.

Is a CPA a Good Career?

Yes. Certified public accountants are usually in-demand, and a good CPA can pull in a high five-figure salary, and if they decided not to work for a large company, they could set up shop on their own. This career offers work opportunities in various public and private sectors, from the government to information technology.

Is a CPA a Stressful Job?

Certified public accountants are in-demand and often more educated than general accountants, but they work long hours, especially during tax time, if they work in taxation. The higher salaries often mean more responsibilities at work, which could cause stress, but it depends on the individual.

The Bottom Line

Becoming a CPA is a good idea for many accounting professionals. Still, it makes the most sense for those seeking to climb the corporate ladder and further educate themselves in accounting. It takes time and effort to earn a CPA designation and therefore to earn an attractive CPA salary.

Employers require CPAs for many senior-level finance positions because it shows that a candidate has ambition and intelligence. Therefore, the greatest monetary rewards of a CPA may come years down the line. CPAs in non-management positions can expect to earn up to 15% more than their peers but can also expect long hours and added responsibility and pressure.

The old mantra "you get what you pay for" rings true here; employers pay CPAs more, so they expect more out of them.