by Michael Feder
Accounting careers may offer flexibility and opportunities across a wide range of sectors. Accountants can specialize in government or nonprofit accounting, consulting or freelance, or work in areas like forensic accounting, auditing or education. All these career paths often start with the same type of education, with many accountants pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Accounting degree.
Bookkeepers and accountants can learn specialized skills as they progress through their degree programs and gain on-the-job experience. That being said, if this is your chosen field, it is crucial to make one important decision at the very start.
People tend to use the terms accounting and bookkeeping interchangeably; however, the two roles require different skills and qualifications. Bookkeepers do not have the training or certifications to work as accountants, and accountants do not usually have the experience or software knowledge to function as bookkeepers.
Here is a look at how these two related-but-separate careers are different and insights that can help you decide which is right for you.
Bookkeepers and accountants generally need different degrees and training to begin their careers. Though they both work with financial statements, their daily duties are distinct, and they rely on different software, tools and processes.
Most importantly, expected salary, growth prospects and additional career opportunities are different for accountants than for bookkeepers.
Here is a closer look at the distinctive aspects of these two careers.
The differences between accounting and bookkeeping start with the educational requirements.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), bookkeepers can begin a career as a bookkeeping clerk with a high school diploma. There are college courses, leading to certification, that teach popular bookkeeping software. Also, the American Institute of Professional Bookkeepers offers a Certified Bookkeeper (CB) accreditation.
Bookkeepers looking for career enhancement opportunities or jobs with larger corporations might consider a finance or business-related associate degree.
Accounting has stricter education requirements. Entry-level positions require at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting, though some employers prefer a graduate degree. According to the BLS report on accounting, many colleges offer bachelor’s and master’s degree programs for specific specializations, such as tax accounting or forensic auditing. Other specialties are available through continuing education or professional development courses. For example, accountants could earn a college-level certificate in financial planning if they were interested in long-term investment and financial strategy.
Those interested in advanced work in the accounting field can pursue becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), which requires a degree and passing a four-part exam. This designation is required if you plan to produce financial reports for publicly traded companies. In addition, many firms require in-house accountants to be licensed CPAs.
A bookkeeper or accountant who chooses to work independently as a consultant or freelancer may benefit from business-related courses. If this is your chosen career path, you can earn a small-business management certificate to learn how to operate your own business.
Bookkeepers and accountants work on different aspects of financial statements.
Bookkeepers’ duties include using software and spreadsheets to record information about transactions, spending, cash flow, income and other finance-related data. They enter numbers into the system, but they do not analyze them beyond verifying their correctness.
As a bookkeeper, you might create financial reports such as balance sheets for nonpublic companies. However, you will typically work with raw financial data and not offer insights into compliance or performance.
An accountant’s duties include verifying that financial records comply with relevant regulations and standards. In this career, you might also complete tax returns, assess budget performance and financial operations, and work on financial risk management.
Some accountants spend their workdays assessing financial transactions and records to find areas to cut costs, increase income and improve profit margins.
One of the most attractive aspects of bookkeeping and accounting careers is that companies in almost every industry rely on specialists in these fields. Enterprises and medium-size companies often have in-house accountants and bookkeepers. There are also opportunities with third-party service providers who handle bookkeeping, accounting, tax preparation and financial reporting for companies and organizations that may not have in-house staff.
Bookkeepers are often employed by professional, scientific and technical services companies, retail or wholesale companies, or financial firms. Other industries that employ bookkeepers include insurance and healthcare.
In addition to working for corporations or businesses, accountants often find employment with financial firms, insurance agencies, auditing companies and government entities. According to BLS, about 4% of accountants are self-employed.
Salary ranges for these two career paths are different. The annual wage in May 2021 for bookkeepers ranged between $29,120 and $61,980, according to BLS. Those who work in finance or insurance are typically on the higher end of this pay scale, and retail and healthcare bookkeepers usually have lower earnings.
Accountants have higher salary expectations. According to BLS, the annual wage range for this profession in May 2021 was $47,970 to $128,970. Average accountant salaries are similar across all specialties, with those working in insurance and finance experiencing marginally higher incomes.
The salary ranges are not specific to students or graduates of University of Phoenix. Actual outcomes vary based on multiple factors, including prior work experience, geographic location and other factors specific to the individual. University of Phoenix does not guarantee employment, salary level or career advancement. BLS data is geographically based. Information for a specific state/city can be researched on the BLS website.
The demand for qualified employees is another area where accounting and bookkeeper careers are very different. According to BLS, the demand for bookkeepers is predicted to fall by 5% between 2021 and 2031 as financial software becomes more advanced. Business owners will probably still have bookkeepers, but fewer employees will be able to manage record-keeping operations.
Over the same period, the demand for accountants is projected to grow by 6%. The same advances and automation will also affect the accounting industry. Accountants will remain in demand because they can generally offer insights that a computer cannot match. In addition, the globalization of commerce, new and more complex tax laws, and expanding technologies may lead to new opportunities for accountants.
Both accounting and bookkeeping jobs are ideal if you like to work with figures or are interested in finance.
If you have a more analytical and strategic mind, the accounting profession may provide the type of challenges that excite you. If you prefer tasks that require attention to detail, involve working with computer programs and financial data, and require good math knowledge, bookkeeping might be a better fit.
You should keep in mind that more business owners are seeking third-party providers to handle their bookkeeping tasks. This makes bookkeeping a good option if you want to become an entrepreneur and use your skills in your own business.
Want to learn more about accounting and business degrees from University of Phoenix? While the University doesn’t have degrees in bookkeeping, it does offer programs in accounting and financial planning. These degree programs help prepare students with the foundational skills to pursue a career in this field. Read below to learn more about available programs:
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