Finance or Accounting: Which Degree is Right for You?

Accounting or Finance: Which Degree is Right for You?

You’re good with numbers, and you want to spend your life using that skill to benefit others. Luckily for you, facility with the principles of accounting and finance doesn’t come naturally to most people, which makes your skills very saleable. It’s lucky for your client, too, who is going to need your help if they want to make the best decisions throughout their life or the life of their business.

When first considering your options, though, you may feel a bit confused. While Finance and Accounting are offered as separate majors at school, out in the “real” world, the two seem fairly part and parcel.

That not only makes it hard to pick a major, it makes post-school decisions difficult as well. For instance, should you choose to become a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant or Chartered Financial Analyst? Considering the amount of schooling beforehand and the complexity of the licensing exam for each, you don’t want to choose the wrong one.

The answer is simple: Learn more about each certification, as well as the difference between these two seemingly related industries. Let’s get started.

So What’s the Difference Between Finance and Accounting?

While both finance and accounting deal with the management of money, either an individual’s or a business’s, they are actually two different fields.

Finance

Finance deals with the view from above. People with finance degrees often work as financial analysts, credit managers or risk managers. They look at the big picture, trying to determine what are the smartest decisions a business owner or individual can make over the long term. They ask questions like:

  • Where is the smartest and safest place to keep assets?
  • If we make this decision, what will it look like in 5 years?
  • How much money is needed to hit X number of dollars by Y year?
  • What’s the most intelligent way to distribute these assets to mitigate risk?
  • What is the risk involved with every decision?
  • Is this a good person to extend credit to?
  • If the worst happens, what will the outcome be?

While this can paint a fairly negative picture of people who work in Finance, jobs in the field do involve more than predicting one endless Doomsday scenario. The bottom line is you get to help people make the smartest decisions about how to handle assets, build wealth and find security over the long run. Done right, it’s an extremely rewarding job.

Accounting

As Finance deals with the thousand-foot view, Accounting deals with the minutiae of everyday life and business. This is in no way minimizes the field, without which it would be difficult if not impossible to make sound financial decisions. Accountants manage books, prepare taxes and payroll reports, and help their clients identify where they can make changes to maximize wealth. They also ask questions, such as:

  • Why is this discrepancy here?
  • Why is spending higher in this category now?
  • What can be done to reduce spending here?
  • What is a reasonable budget for this year’s goals?
  • How can we manage these assets to maximize tax deductions?
  • When is the best time to make purchases?

You can see that in the case of the accountant, the questions are geared more toward small decisions that add up to a big picture. In contrast, Finance people help paint the ideal big picture, then break those goals down into guidance for how to manage small decisions. Often, an accountant or financial analyst will provide both sides of the equation.

Still, you’ll still need to decide which approach appeals to you more: the more abstract view from above or the more concrete view from sea level? Again, keep in mind that both come with actionable advice and real analysis, and that in either role you can take on aspects of the other. One of the best ways to decide which route to take is to have a look at the certifications associated with each.

CPA, CMA or CFA: Which one is right for Me?

While these designations all sound fairly similar, they’re actually pretty different. Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Certified Public Accountant (CPA): This type of accountant does a lot of tax work, represents businesses to the IRS, performs routine bookkeeping services, audits internally and helps people and firms with the day-to-day.
  • Certified Management Accountant (CMA): This designation has a greater higher finance role, preparing forecasts and helping businesses make strategic decisions based on current financial standing.
  • Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA): Those who hold the CFA do a lot of analysis, portfolio management, risk assessment and overarching financial analysis to guide their clients toward sounder decision-making.

As you progress from CPA to CMA to CFA, the scope widens. Your particular interests will dictate where on this spectrum you fall, so think carefully before picking the right path for you. And as always, if you want to learn more about any of your options, get in touch.

This post is part of a series of informational articles for working adults who are considering a master’s degree. We kicked things off with 6 Exciting Career Opportunities for MS in Accounting Graduates, followed by Is a Master of Science in Accounting Worth Your Time?5 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Becoming a CPA and Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a CPA. Next week’s article is The 5-Step Journey to Becoming a Certified Public Accountant.

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