CPA Salary Guide: Earning Power from Junior Accountants to Partners

CPA Salary Guide: Earning Power from Junior Accountants to Partners

Before you go into accounting, it is natural to ponder about the future of the profession and accountants’ salaries. 

And for those who are already accountants, you might be wondering if it is worthwhile to pursue the CPA credential and whether the hard-earned qualification will bring tangible benefits like higher accounting pay.

Accountants love statistics and tables, so I’m going to clearly show why accounting is an excellent career choice in the 21st century. I will also show you how the “one-off” effort of getting the CPA will lead to more fruitful financial benefits for years to come.

For those who prefer to read the text, here is what we went over in the video:

Accountant Salaries

Before we start talking about accounting salaries, I want to remind you that accountants and CPAs can take a range of positions in public, private, industrial, governmental, and educational settings. Therefore, a private tax accountant salary at a small firm might be very different from a senior accountant salary at a large corporation. Plus, more experienced accountants and CPAs tend to have higher salaries than the typical accountant starting salary. So, I’ve done my best to go over average salaries for accountants in this article. But depending on the setting and whether you are eligible for bonuses and profit-sharing, overall CPA salaries and compensation can be much higher than what I’m going to share in this article.

To help you better understand your potential accounting job salary, I’ve compiled research from the AICPA (American Institute of Certified Public Accountants), the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, several job search websites, and the 2020 Robert Half Salary Guide, a standard resource for salaries in the finance and accounting field.

CPA Salary Guide for Public Accounting

How much do CPAs make? The 202 Robert Half Salary Guide provides figures for an average public accountant salary based on several factors. You will note that in the following charts, the accountants salary figures have been divided into 25th-95th percentiles. The average salary of an accountant can vary at small, medium, and large CPA firms, so that accounts for the range in figures. The range is also due to the local cost of living and candidates’ unique qualifications that can affect an overall salary.

Also, please note that these amounts are base salaries. So, they don’t include perks like bonuses and cost sharing. All amounts are in US dollars.

1. Junior Accountants (1-3 years)

  25th Percentile 50th Percentile 75th Percentile 95th Percentile
Tax Services: Entry Level $40,250 $48,750 $57,000 $75,250
Tax Services: 1-3 Years $48,750 $59,500 &70,250 $93,000
Audit/Assurance Services: Entry Level $50,250 $48,750 $57,500 $76,000
Audit/Assurance Services: 1-3 Years $44,750 $54,250 $64,000 $84,750

(USD in thousands)

Junior accountants in the public sector often work in either tax services or audit and assurance services. However, these services can bring different paychecks.

Accountants fresh out of college typically start their career with a salary range in the low- to mid-$40Ks and up to the $50Ks depending on the firm and the local cost of living. That is, if you are working in a city with a high cost of living, like New York or San Francisco, you’ll probably make more than accountants in small, affordable communities.

As they accumulate experience and get their CPA qualification, most accountants will have a pretty decent salary raise and will make about $70K to $80K with just a few years of experience. And, salaries for accountants can even approach $90K for those who are lucky enough to work during “good” times and live in expensive cities such as New York.

2. Senior Accountants (4-6 years)

  25th Percentile 50th Percentile 75th Percentile 95th Percentile
Tax Services $61,750 $73,000 $86,750 $115,000
Audit/Assurance Services $54,000 $66,500 $78,000 $103,000

As accountants climb up the career ladder and become senior accountants, assistant managers, and managers, most firms award them with increased salaries every year.

From here, the difference in an accountancy salary becomes more apparent between small firms (for example, local CPA firms serving mom-and-pop shops) to big firms such as the Big 4 and other national accounting firms.

Salaries for senior accountants can widely vary depending on the location and the overall competitiveness of the job market.

3. Director and Senior Managers

  25th Percentile 50th Percentile 75th Percentile 95th Percentile
Tax Services: Manager $88,000 $106,500 $126,250 $167,000
Tax Services: Senior Manager/Director $113,750 $126,750 $164,250 $216,000
Audit/Assurance Services: Manager $75,750 $93,000 $109,500 $144,500
Audit/Assurance Services: Senior Manager/Director $112,000 $134,000 $160,250 $211,000

After several years of experience, many public accountants move to corporate accounting or another financial field.

For those who stay and become partners in their firms, here is the reward: the average CPA salary will be multiples of what they earned a few years ago. Some CPA holders with high levels of experience can even reach half a million dollars per year in corporate accounting settings, as I’ve highlighted for you in the next section of this article.

The range can be pretty big — if one works in a small local CPA firm, you simply can’t charge too much to each client and so the revenue (thus the salary) will remain to be limited.

However, for Big 4 and other major firms with many million-dollar accounts, it is understandable that partners can actually get a very good income that is much larger than the average accountant salary. Having said that, the stress and the workload that come with those big salaries will also be quite different.

CPA Salary Guide for Corporate Accounting

Many public accountants switch to corporate settings in search of a better work-life balance or for other family reasons. Some make the change because they don’t want to be a “salesman” soliciting clients but would rather happily stay in the middle and back office instead of pounding the pavement looking for clients.

In terms of accountants average salary prospects for these CPAs, it does make a difference when you make the switch. If you switch early in your career, you will have more time to climb the salary ladder.

In the following tables, I’ve broken down the salary prospects for some popular positions in corporate accounting. If you are interested in learning about another position, check out the 2020 Robert Half Salary Guide.

1. Junior Level (1-3 years)

  25th Percentile 50th Percentile 75th Percentile 95th Percentile
General Accountant: Entry Level $39,750 $48,500 $57,000 $72,000
General Accountant: 1-3 Years $50,750 $64,250 $75,750 $100,500
Financial Analyst: Entry Level $44,000 $53,250 $63,000 $82,250
Financial Analyst: 1-3 Years $57,000 $69,250 $82,000 $107,250
Budget Analyst: Entry Level $43,250 $52,500 $62,500 $82,750
Budget Analyst: 1-3 Years $56,500 $68,250 $81,250 $107,250

General entry-level accountants in corporate accounting make slightly less than their counterparts in public accounting. However, if you start your career in a position like a financial analyst or budget analyst in comparison to a general staff accountant, you could expect to make more money even in an entry-level position. After just a few years of experience, you can expect to earn anywhere from US$50K to $80K depending on the industry and the location. Typically, the level is slightly lower than that in public accounting, but you’ll have the opportunity to increase your salary as you advance your career.

2. Senior Level (4-6 years)

  25th Percentile 50th Percentile 75th Percentile 95th Percentile
General Accountant: Senior $66,000 $80,500 $95,000 $120,750
Financial Analyst: Senior $70,000 $85,500 $101,500 $134,000
Budget Analyst: Senior $69,500 $84,000 $100,250 $132,000

With 4-6 years of experience, finance professionals in the accounting department will generally get a salary raise by promotion and will start making $60K to the mid-$80Ks. For highly profitable industries or those specializing in niches with a high demand, you can expect to get paid more.

While getting the CPA will certainly help your resume, this qualification is not necessary at this stage in non-public accounting.

3. Managers

  25th Percentile 50th Percentile 75th Percentile 95th Percentile
General Accountant: Manager $79,000 $92,250 $113,500 $147,000
Financial Analyst: Manager $87,750 $106,000 $126,500 $167,250
Financial Analyst: Director $109,500 $134,500 $157,750 $208,250
Budget Analyst: Manager $86,500 $105,250 $125,000 $165,250

By the time you climb your way up to manager or director and have 6+ years of experience, you’ll continue to see your salary increase. Depending on your niche, you’ll probably make anywhere from the low $80Ks to over $100K. It’s possible that a salary for an accountant can climb to over $200K at this point in your career depending on the size and location of your firm.

However, if you want to advance past manager or director of a department, or if you want to go for an executive-level position, I strongly recommend that you get your CPA credential.

4. Senior Management Level + Executive-Level Positions

  25th Percentile 50th Percentile 75th Percentile 95th Percentile
Assistant Treasurer $71,750 $95,500 $112,000 $172,250
Tax Director $113,250 $142,250 $170,000 $270,000
Corporate Controller $106,000 $177,750 $198,000 $262,750
Director of Accounting $97,000 $146,750 $163,000 $226,000
Director of Finance $101,750 $152,250 $165,000 $248,000
Vice-President of Finance $110,000 $185,750 $226,250 $402,250
Treasurer $112,000 $192,750 $232,500 $484,250
Chief Financial Officer $121,500 $202,750 $240,000 $498,000

Once you have 10+ years of experience in finance, you could work your way up to controller or CFO of an organization. In this case, you can expect to get more than $100K even at small local firms. For important positions in listed companies, your salary could be significantly larger. Plus, employees in these high level positions frequently get additional benefits, bonuses, and profit-sharing that can considerably add to your overall compensation.

At this stage, a CPA qualification is almost necessary—so if you didn’t get it 5-10 years ago, you will have to make up for it or wait to get fired. I am not trying to scare you, but I do want you to understand the importance of getting the CPA license to have long-term job security in positions at this level. It seems like almost every week, I get an email from people in these senior positions whose employers tell them they need to get the CPA to keep their jobs, even though they are in their 40s or even 50s. (And by the way, if you’re in that position yourself, hop on over to this article.)

What is the Role of CPA Designation in Your Career?

In summary, here are the reasons for you to consider getting your CPA license:

  • In general, you can expect a salary raise of 10-15% once you become a CPA. And after that, most firms will give you another raise every year. Just think about the cumulative impact.
  • As you move up in your career, especially in a CPA firm, it is mandatory that you get the CPA license. This is definitely the case if you are aspiring to be a partner.
  • Even in corporate accounting, if you want to hold important roles like controller or CFO, potential employers will expect you to be a CPA. If you procrastinate and don’t get this done until 15 years after you start your career, it’s just harder at that age to go back to the textbooks and tackle exams.

Accountant Job Salary for CPA + Other Qualifications

We’ve talked about CPA salaries, but what if you have the CPA plus another high level credential like the CIA, CMA, or EA? Or what if you have a master’s degree like a MAcc or MBA and also plan to get the CPA? What could your accounting salary look like then? Let’s look at some examples that I gathered from data collected by Payscale.com:

  • Average CPA salary (regardless of college degree): $66,287
  • Average Master’s Degree in Accounting Salary: $70,606
  • Average MBA in Accounting Salary: $73,756
  • Average MBA salary: $88,000

Of course, these averages are just that—averages that factor in entry-level salaries to high-level salaries. But still, you can see that overall, an accounting degree salary can be higher if you have an advanced degree.

What’s the Job Future Like?

Making good accountant pay is great, and holding on to that job with a strong accountant salary is even better. In today’s uncertain business environment, what’s the outlook for accounting professionals?

Well thankfully, accounting and other finance professionals are still in high demand in the United States. In fact, as the business world continues to evolve, professionals like CPAs will be needed to help companies adapt to new conditions.

According to the 2020 Robert Half Salary Guide, the following positions will continue to be in high demand in the next several years:

  • Accounting manager
  • Business analysis
  • Controller
  • Financial analysis
  • Internal auditor
  • Payroll manager
  • Senior accountant
  • Staff accountant

Talent Shortages

Talent shortages in niche sectors have made CPAs and other credentialed accounting professionals really valuable to their employers. The need is especially great in public accounting. The financial services industry also needs more qualified professionals, especially those with experience in banking, financial markets, risk, compliances, and other financial operations.

If you have these desired qualifications and work experiences, you may be able to negotiate a higher salary.

FAQs

How much does an accountant make?

Salary.com maintains data related to salaries for US-based employees. According to their updated 2020 figures, the average accountant salary is $54,875 for junior accountants, but the salaries range from $49,963-$60,413. The average senior accountant salary is $79,890, but salaries range from $65,371 to up to $96,511.

What is a staff accountant salary?

According to Robert Half International, Inc., who analyzes accounting salaries and employment trends, the average salary for a staff accountant with less than 1 year of experience is about $48,500. The range for these entry-level staff accountants starts at $39,750 but can be as high as $72,000. Salary ranges depend on the size of the firm, the local cost of living, and the candidate’s unique qualifications.

However, with just 1-3 years of experience, a staff accountant could make $50,750 to $100,500.

What is a CPA average salary?

According to Payscale.com, the average CPA starting salary is about $48,000. The average CPA salary in the United States is about $66,287. But, CPAs could make as much as $111,000.

What’s the salary of an accounting manager?

If you are striving for a general accountant manager position, you can expect to make about $79,000-$147,000, according to the 2020 Robert Half Salary Guide.

How high are tax accountant salaries?

According to the 2020 Robert Half Salary Guide, entry-level tax accountants with up to 1 year of experience make about $44,500-$82,250. However, manager-level tax accountants can expect $93,250-$164,250.

What is a public accounting salary like?

According to the 2020 Robert Half Salary Guide, a public accounting salary in tax services for a professional with up to 1 year of experience ranges from $40,250 to $75,250. However, senior managers and directors can make as much as $113,750-$216,000 plus bonuses and other incentives.

Public accountants in audit and assurance services can expect to make slightly less. An entry-level public accountant salary in these areas brings $40,250-$76,000. However, senior managers and directors can make $112,000-$211,000 plus bonuses and other benefits.

Would You Like To Become A CPA Someday… Or Now?

You can learn about how to become a CPA here. If you are serious to get started, I encourage you to sign up for my free mini-course.

If you like this post and would like to learn more about the CPA Exam, check out my mini-course, which is completely free. I have two versions designed for candidates with different backgrounds:

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For US Candidates
(Those with US degrees, or
graduate/live/work in the US)
For Intl Candidates
(Those who study abroad, or
graduate/live/work outside of the US)

About the Author Stephanie Ng

I am the author of How to Pass The CPA Exam (published by Wiley), and I also passed all 4 sections of the CPA Exam on my first try. Additionally, I have led webinars, such as for the Institute of Management Accountants, authored featured articles on websites like Going Concern and AccountingWeb, and I'm also the CFO for the charity New Sight. Finally, I have created other accounting certification websites to help mentor non-CPA candidates. I have already mentored thousands of CPA, CMA, CIA, EA, and CFA candidates, and I can help you too!

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