Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there are some notable differences between bookkeepers, accountants and certified public accountants. Each position entails distinct job duties and education requirements, which results in widely varying pay scales. According to Harold Averkamp, founder of AccountingCoach.com, a bookkeeper’s salary is likely to be half that of an accountant, largely due to education and job opportunity differences.
The typical bookkeeper does not have a college degree and is primarily responsible for many of the routine data entry tasks. Bookkeeping tasks occur in monthly cycles and are mostly mechanical in nature. The monthly process consists mainly of entering transactions into the bookkeeping journals (accounts receivable, accounts payable and so forth), making adjustments and preparing monthly reports. Often referred to as clerks or accounting technicians, bookkeepers may have more focused duties, such as only acting as the accounts payable clerk or accounts receivable clerk. Depending on the employer, a bookkeeper may also be in charge of payroll, the preparation and mailing of invoices, bank deposits and some collection duties.
Most accountants are likely to have a college degree in accounting, generally consisting of 120 to 150 college credits, with a minimum of 30 credits in accounting courses and another 30 credits in alternative business courses. Accountants are more apt to be employed by larger companies and generally deal with more complicated transactions. Accountants are responsible for making more complex adjustments to a company’s books, such as the calculation and recording of depreciation and allowances for uncollectible accounts receivable. Job duties for an accountant also include preparing financial statements (income, balance sheet and cash flow) and helping management to understand the impact of past and future fiscal decisions.
A certified public accountant, or CPA, generally has a four-year college degree in accounting and an extra 30 hours of college coursework beyond the bachelor’s degree. Often, accounting experience is required before becoming a CPA. All states also require an accountant to pass a standardized CPA exam set up by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants to become licensed. CPAs are prepared to handle a variety of tasks related to financial matters for businesses and individuals, including financial planning, tax preparation and advice, retirement planning, investment planning and internal auditing. Job duties may also entail the preparation and maintenance of financial records and monitoring financial reports for criminal activity, inaccuracies and inefficient expenditures.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job opportunities for bookkeepers and accountants are expected to grow by 10 percent during the decade between 2008 and 2018. Bookkeepers and accountants capable of carrying out a wider range of accounting activities will be in more demand than those who specialize in one area. As of May 2010, the average annual wage for these occupations was $35,000. The employment growth for CPAs is expected to be much faster than average, with an increase of 22 percent between 2008 and 2018. CPAs, who earn a master’s degree in accounting or business administration with an emphasis in accounting, may have an advantage. As of May 2010, the average annual wage for CPAs was $69,000.
2016 Salary Information for Accountants and Auditors
Accountants and auditors earned a median annual salary of $68,150 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, accountants and auditors earned a 25th percentile salary of $53,240, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $90,670, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 1,397,700 people were employed in the U.S. as accountants and auditors.