Accountant vs. Financial Planning: An Overview

Accounting and financial planning provide rewarding and lucrative long-term career options. Both careers offer strong job growth and median incomes higher than the average across all fields.

Both the accountant and financial planning profession are filled with individuals that are bright and motivated while being good with numbers. Interested parties, however, should understand they are quite different, despite both involving heavy doses of numbers and math.

Key Takeaways

  • The accountant and financial planner professions tend to rely heavily on math and numbers but there are major differences.
  • Accountants do auditing work, financial forecasting, and putting together financial statements, while financial planners help individuals with wealth management and retirement planning.
  • Accountants are usually detail-oriented and good with numbers, while financial planners are better at sales and networking.
  • Both professions have above average job market outlooks, but accountants are generally paid a salary while much of a financial planners pay is commission based.

Accountant

An accountant records, summarizes, analyzes, and creates reports of financial transactions. Public accountants work for third-party firms auditing financial statements—a legal requirement for any publicly traded company. Internal accountants work for private companies and perform duties such as auditing, inventory accounting, and financial forecasting. Sales is not a part of the job, other than the process of selling oneself and services to potential clients.

Financial Planner

A financial planner is a type of financial advisor who specializes in certain aspects of wealth management, such as tax planning, portfolio management, and retirement planning. While a financial planner must be good with numbers and possess a keen understanding of how the markets work, it is arguably more important to have strong sales and networking skills. Coming into the profession, one's employer is not likely to hand over clients to manage. Financial planners are tasked with building a book of business on their own.

Key Differences

Required Education

Although neither career imposes specific academic requirements, most successful accountants and financial planners have at least a bachelor's degree. For accountants, the only time a licensing board requires a certain level of education is when pursuing the certified public accountant (CPA) certification.

Becoming a CPA requires 150 hours of post-secondary education, which is more than a bachelor's degree but does not necessarily entail completing a master's degree. Otherwise, individual firms doing the hiring, not state or federal boards, set education requirements for accountants.

Individuals can become a financial planner without a bachelor's degree, as long as they pass the requisite securities exams. However, financial planners often hold specific licenses and designations, the most common being that of a certified financial planner (CFP). A CFP must pass rigorous exams in multiple areas of wealth management and finances. Gaining the CFP designation requires completion of a bachelor's degree from an accredited school.

Necessary Skills

Key accountant skills include being focused, detail-oriented, and adept with numbers. The work hours are long for the first few years of a public accountant's career. Financial planners are first and foremost salespeople. Networking is an around-the-clock job for financial planners. Financial planners also tend to enjoy following the markets.

Starting Salaries

Pay structure marks a huge difference between accounting and financial planning. Accountants receive a straight salary. Bonuses, when applicable, are usually determined by the performance of the firm as a whole. Financial planners, by contrast, receive either a straight commission, charge flat or hourly fees, or receive a mix of commission and fees. It is very much a pay-for-performance career.

For accountants, the Big Four accounting firms—Ernst & Young, Deloitte, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers—typically pay entry-level CPA candidates between $60,000 and $80,000 the first year. Beyond the Big Four, starting salary varies greatly depending on the size of the firm, the scope of the job and the region of the country. First-year financial planners are usually offered a small salary or draw, usually between $25,000 and $40,000, as they built their business.

Job Outlook

While the Great Recession battered the financial industry, accounting and financial planning have strong job outlooks for 2019 and beyond. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts greater than 10% growth for accountants and auditors between 2016 and 2026. The projected growth rate for personal financial advisors is 15% in the same period.

Work-Life Balance

Expect a lot of hours your first few years, either as an accountant or financial planner. As an accountant, the busiest months are from January to April, with weekly work hours during those months being upwards of 60. For the remainder of the year, accounting offers a decent work-life balance, with 40-hour work weeks being the standard.

Most financial planners dedicate a lot of hours their first few years to finding and selling clients. This duty alone can push weekly hours worked to above 40. Developing strong word-of-mouth marketing can ease the hours worked significantly.

The Bottom Line

The choice between accounting and financial planning depends more on personality than anything else. Both careers require mathematical proficiency and a strong work ethic. Beyond that, for those that hate sales, financial planning likely isn’t a great career choice. Similarly, for those not keen on crunching numbers, preferring to interact with people, accounting will likely come up short as a fulfilling career.