Written by: Mary Gerardine

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The Certified Financial Planner (CFP) and Certified Public Accountant (CPA) credentials are both prestigious and signify a high level of expertise within the financial industry, and the main differences between them ultimately lie in the scope and focus of the services they provide.

CFPs specialize in financial planning, including investment and retirement planning, while CPAs focus primarily on accounting, taxation, and auditing services.

In this CFP vs CPA article, we’ll cover the differences between CFPs and CPAs — including their roles and functions — in order to help you determine which designation is right for you.

CFP vs CPA Salary

Both CFPs and CPAs are highly respected in the financial industry. Still, they cater to different aspects of finance and can offer different salaries.

CFP Salary

CFPs primarily work in the area of personal finance planning.

Financial planners provide retirement planning, estate planning, wealth management, and asset allocation tax advice, among other financial services. In the reporting regulation business environment, a CFP can also provide valuable guidance on how personal financial planning intersects with compliance requirements.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that CFPs can earn a median annual salary of $94,170. In addition, recent industry data reports that the average salary of a CFP is approximately $88,000 or more per year, depending on their experience, location, and the complexity of the services they provide.

Those who own their financial planning firms, who work with high-net-worth individuals, or who have more than 15 years of experience often report an average income of $297,000 or more per year.

CPA Salary

CPAs focus on accounting, tax preparation, and auditing services. Certified public accountants may work for corporations, government agencies, nonprofits, or run their own practices.

The average annual salary for CPAs also varies widely, typically starting from $70,235 to $461,014. The actual amount can differ significantly based on the specific job role that requires a CPA, whether it’s for an entry-level position or for those with more experience or specialized skills.

In corporate settings or high-level consulting roles, CPAs can earn a considerably high annual salary.

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CFP vs CPA Difficulty

Choosing between a CFP and a CPA designation involves more than just comparing roles, responsibilities, and salaries. One often overlooked critical aspect is the difficulty associated with obtaining each credential.

Below are the factors that influence the level of challenge in earning a CFP vs CPA:

Prerequisite Requirements

  • CFP: To become a CFP, it’s essential to hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. Additionally, candidates are required to complete a specialized series of financial planning courses prior to sitting for the exam. However, this coursework requirement may be waived for those who already possess other relevant credentials or degrees in the financial field.
  • CPA: To get a CPA license, not only is a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution mandatory, but candidates must also complete a minimum of 150 semester hours of college education. This often equates to a bachelor’s degree along with additional coursework. There is a requirement for a specific number of accounting and business coursework credits, ensuring that CPA candidates have a solid foundation in the areas most relevant to their future careers.


  • CFP: Candidates must have a minimum of three years of professional experience in the financial planning field. Secondly, ethical standards are rigorously upheld; candidates are required to pass a background check and must also adhere to the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards’s (CFP Board) ethical requirements to obtain and maintain the credential.
  • CPA: The amount of work experience needed can vary by state, but it generally necessitates at least two years in a relevant field such as accounting, tax, or auditing. In terms of ethics, most jurisdictions require CPA candidates to pass an ethics exam, ensuring they adhere to professional standards and ethical practices in their future careers.

Exam Difficulty

  • CFP: The CFP exam is a comprehensive one-day, six-hour test that covers topics like retirement planning, tax, estate planning, and insurance, among others. The overall pass rate varies but is generally around 60%.
  • CPA: The CPA exam consists of four separate sections, each taken separately. The subjects include Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG). Each exam takes four hours, making the total exam time 16 hours. The pass rate for individual sections ranges from about 45% to 61%.

Continuing Education

  • CFP: CFPs are required to complete 30 hours of continuing education (CE) every two years to keep their certification active. 
  • CPA: While the requirements can differ by state, CPAs generally need to complete around 40 hours of Continuing Professional Education (CPE) each year. This commitment to ongoing learning ensures that CPAs are up-to-date with the latest accounting practices, tax laws, and industry standards.

Both CFP and CPA designations require a significant investment of time, effort, and money, and both come with their unique sets of challenges. 

Your career aspirations, preferred subject matter, and long-term goals will play a significant role in determining which credential is more suitable and which set of challenges you are more willing to take on.

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Which is Right for You?

Deciding between becoming a CFP or a CPA involves evaluating various factors like your experience, career goals, budget, and other specific needs. Here are some common factors to help you decide which path may be more aligned with your objectives:

  • Experience: If you already have some background in financial planning or advising, the CFP designation might be a logical next step for you. If you have a background in accounting, tax, or auditing, your experience will likely make the path to becoming a CPA easier
  • Career Goals: If you are passionate about helping people achieve their financial goals through planning for retirement, investments, and estate planning, the CFP designation will serve you well. If you aim to work in corporate finance, auditing, or tax specialization, a CPA is often a prerequisite
  • Budget: The costs associated with obtaining a CFP are generally lower compared to the CPA. The CFP exam cost ranges from $825 to $1,025, depending on when you register. The CPA application and exam fees vary by jurisdiction. For example, in Missouri, the exam fee starts at $1,000, not including the required additional coursework for those who haven’t met the 150-semester-hour requirement

Your choice between CFP and CPA should be guided by your career goals, your existing experience, and your financial capacity to undertake the necessary exams and educational requirements.

If you’re more interested in helping individuals and families with comprehensive financial planning, including retirement, estate planning, and investments, the CFP designation may be more aligned with your career goals. It’s generally less costly to obtain and focuses on a broader range of financial topics compared to the CPA.

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Is the CFP better than the CPA?

Determining whether a CFP is “better” than a CPA depends on your career and financial goals. CFPs specialize in comprehensive financial planning, investments, and retirement. CPAs focus on accounting, tax preparation, and auditing. Both are highly respected but serve different financial aspects, so one is not universally “better” than the other. Learn more in our CFP vs CPA comparison.

Is the CFP exam harder than the CPA?

The difficulty of the CFP and CPA exams varies based on your strengths and career focus. The CFP exam is a one-day test, consisting of two three-hour sections, with a pass rate of around 60%. The CPA exam consists of four separate four-hour sections with pass rates ranging from 45% to 61% per section. See our What is a CFP article for more information.

How much do CFPs and CPAs make?

Salaries for CFPs and CPAs can vary widely depending on experience, location, and specialization. CFPs generally earn a median annual salary of $94,170. CPAs can earn from $88,000 to $297,000 with the potential for higher earnings due to specialization and work experience. Both careers offer strong earning potential.

How many people fail the CFP exam?

The pass rate for the CFP exam varies by year but generally hovers around 60%. This implies that approximately 40% of test-takers do not pass the exam on their first attempt. The difficulty of the exam and the broad range of topics covered contribute to the relatively high failure rate.

Can you pass the CFP in six months?

Passing the CFP exam in six months is feasible but challenging, especially if you’re starting from scratch with the required coursework. The exam itself is comprehensive, covering a wide range of financial planning topics. A dedicated study plan, prior relevant experience, and potentially accelerated coursework could make a six-month timeline achievable. Get started and earn your CFP Certification today.

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