The distinctions between accounting and bookkeeping are subtle yet important to understand when considering a career in either field. Bookkeepers record the day-to-day financial transactions of a business. There are a lot of minutiae involved, and keen attention to detail is paramount. Accountants, by contrast, focus more on the big picture. At specified intervals, they review and analyze the financial information recorded by bookkeepers and use it to conduct audits, generate financial statements and forecast future business needs.
The two careers are similar and accountants and bookkeepers often work side by side. These careers require many of the same skills and attributes. However, important differences exist in the nature of work conducted in each career and what is required to be successful. The following analysis compares the education requirements, skills needed, typical starting salaries and job outlooks for accounting and bookkeeping.
Neither accounting nor bookkeeping imposes hard-and-fast educational requirements. You can find plenty of bookkeepers and even some accountants who have no further education than a high school diploma. Unlike careers such as law and medicine, in which state licensing boards determine how much education you need, with accounting and bookkeeping, the companies doing the hiring decide what to require of candidates.
That said, landing an accounting job requires, in most cases, more education than becoming a bookkeeper. In the 21st century, most accountants hold bachelor's degrees. Many hold advanced degrees, such as MBAs with accounting or finance concentrations, or they have Master of Accountancy degrees. To sit for the Certified Public Accountant, or CPA exam, which is a common goal of many accountants, you must have a minimum of 150 postsecondary education hours. This is a bachelor's degree plus 30 hours of graduate work; most CPA candidates go ahead and finish their master's degrees.
You can become a bookkeeper right out of high school if you prove you are good with numbers and have strong attention to detail. In fact, many aspiring accountants work as bookkeepers to get a foot in the door while still in school. Additionally, bookkeepers who excel at their jobs are sometimes promoted to accounting positions, even if they lack the level of education the company typically prefers.
Accountants and bookkeepers work with numbers all day long. Therefore, those who do not like math, get confused easily when making simple calculations or are generally averse to number crunching should not apply.
Speaking of number crunching, that job duty is actually more common to bookkeeping than to accounting. Companies task bookkeepers with tasks such as recording journal entries and conducting bank reconciliations. As a bookkeeper, your attention to detail must be almost preternatural. Careless mistakes that seem inconsequential at the time can lead to bigger, costlier, more time-consuming problems down the road. You must be able to multitask. Rarely does a bookkeeper work on one big project for an eight-hour shift; rather, a typical workday involves juggling five or six smaller jobs.
As an accountant, you also have to crunch numbers, but it is much more important to possess sharp logic skills and big-picture, problem-solving abilities. While bookkeepers make sure the small pieces fit properly into place, accountants use those small pieces to draw much bigger and broader conclusions.
Both careers, accounting in particular, cover a broad gamut of starting salaries. How much you make as a first-year accountant depends in large part on the specific career path you pursue. While accounting can be a lucrative long-term career, most accountants, unlike corporate attorneys or investment bankers, do not command huge salaries during the first few years.
Public accounting generally pays the most to a candidate right out of school. In particular, the Big Four firms of Ernst & Young, Deloitte, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers offer larger salaries than mid-size and small firms. Depending on the city, you can expect to earn between $50,000 and $60,000 your first year as a Big Four accountant.
Mid-size and small public accounting firms pay, on average, about 10% less than the Big Four. If you choose to work for a company internally instead of doing public accounting, the starting salary range is very broad. In most cases, private companies do not pay more than the Big Four for young accountants with little experience.
Bookkeepers often get paid hourly wages rather than annual salaries. The average wage for someone new to the business is between $15 and $16 per hour. This is the equivalent of $31,200 to $33,280 per year, assuming a 40-hour work week. The advantage of hourly pay is you receive 1.5 times your normal wage for hours worked in excess of 40 per week. In bookkeeping, extra hours are common during the busy season of January to April.
Like most fields, accounting and bookkeeping suffered contraction during The Great Recession. They have recovered nicely, however, with economists forecasting job growth of 13% through 2022 for the broader field of accounting, which includes bookkeeping. This is slightly higher than the overall growth rate that considers all fields.
Bookkeeping faces a specific challenge similar to switchboard operating, word processing and other fields in which software programs can perform many jobs humans once did. While technology has reduced demand for workers to conduct the most trivial bookkeeping tasks, it has also increased the need for more skilled workers who can operate this technology efficiently. Therefore, while fewer jobs may exist in the field moving forward, the ones that remain will pay more and entail more responsibility.
Which One to Choose
For a long-term career, accounting offers much more upward mobility, individual career paths and income potential than bookkeeping. The education required to be competitive in the field is greater, but the payoff down the road is immense. That said, bookkeeping is a great starting point if you are interested in the field but not fully committed and want to test the waters.
You may also be an ideal bookkeeping candidate if you want a good job with a respectable wage and decent security but may not be looking for a long-term career. Bookkeeping offers much lower barriers to entry, and the competition you face in the job search is less fierce.