Bookkeeper, Controller, CFO, EA, or CPA? | What’s the Difference?

Feb 29, 2024Accounting, Bookkeeping, CFO

If you’re a small business owner and your business is growing, you’re probably interested in turning over some aspects of your business to professionals. When a company becomes more successful and grows, business owners often seek outside help regarding financial operations and strategy.

However, in financial management, various titles such as bookkeeper, controller, or CPA get tossed around interchangeably,which sometimes leads to confusion about the roles and responsibilities associated with each. Let’s look at the different financial operations roles to understand better what you and your organization need.

What is a bookkeeper?

A bookkeeper is responsible for keeping and maintaining accurate financial records for a business or organization. This role includes tasks such as recording daily financial transactions, updating a general ledger, reconciling accounts, and producing financial statements. They prepare monthly statements, ledgers, and tax returns for inspection by the organization’s CPA.

Some organizations have a full-charge bookkeeper instead of a regular bookkeeper. A full-charge bookkeeper performs the tasks of a regular bookkeeper but also does high-level, complex duties and takes responsibility for the company’s finances. They are more experienced and also have higher salaries than regular bookkeepers. Typically, smaller companies that don’t have a controller, CFO, or CPA have a full-charge bookkeeper.

Bookkeepers are not required to have any specific educational background or training. The role also does not require a college degree; many bookkeepers work straight out of high school. However, many employers prefer hiring bookkeepers who pursue further training or education. Several institutions offer diploma or certificate courses in bookkeeping.

Bookkeepers play a fundamental role in ensuring the day-to-day financial operations of a business run smoothly.

Responsibilities: Data entry, recording daily financial transactions, updating ledgers, reconciling accounts, producing financial statements.

Education and Training: At least a high school diploma, some college or a college degree (not required), possibly with a certificate course in bookkeeping.

Average Salary (USA): $43,971 annually

Typical Hourly Rate: $24.31 an hour

Types: General bookkeeper, Full charge bookkeeper, Certified bookkeeper

What is an accountant?

The role of an accountant can differ depending on the client and the organization’s needs. In general, an accountant records, analyzes, interprets, and reports financial information. They document financial transactions, review financial documents to resolve discrepancies, monitor existing accounting practices, and ensure they comply with relevant laws and regulations.

There are several educational paths towards becoming an accountant. Some complete a bachelor’s degree in accountancy or accounting, while others obtain a business or data science degree and then take a master’s degree in accounting.

On the other hand, a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) must have passed the CPA exam issued by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and hold a CPA license from the state licensing board. All CPAs are accountants, but not all accountants are CPAs. Being a CPA requires a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field and at least 150 credited hours of coursework. Take note various states have differing requirements for becoming a CPA.

While Accounting degree holders can take on accounting roles, they may face employment opportunities and career advancement challenges if they are not CPAs. Many clients and companies will choose to work with a CPA compared to non-licensed accountants. Often, non-CPA accountants work under a CPA in more minor roles, such as accounts payable, accounts receivable, and bookkeeping.

Accountants play an essential role in a company or individual’s financial affairs and provide valuable insights into financial operations, financial planning, financial performance, and decision-making.

Responsibilities: Records, analyzes, and interprets financial information, document financial transactions, reviews financial documents, resolves discrepancies, monitors accounting practices, ensures compliance relevant laws and regulations

Education and Training: Bachelor’s degree in Accounting or similar, CPAs must pass the CPA exam and hold a license from the state board.

Average Salary (USA): $62,711 annually

Typical Hourly Rate: $30 an hour

Types: CPA, Forensic accountant, Management accountant, Cost accountant, Investment accountant, Staff accountant

What is an EA (Enrolled Agent)?

An EA (Enrolled Agent) is a federally-authorized tax practitioner who has expertise in the field of taxation. They are authorized to represent taxpayers in matters that involve the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), such as audits, appeals, and collections. They specialize in tax preparation and planning, helping individuals navigate the tax code.

EAs must either pass the Special Enrollment Examination (SEE) or meet minimum IRS requirements. Former IRS employees with at least five years of taxation experience may apply to become an EA and are not required to take the SEE. EAs are not required to have college degrees, but must complete 72 hours of continuing education every 36 months. They do not require a state license and must pass a mandatory background check.

When deciding to work with an EA or a CPA, consider the differences between the roles. EAs specialize in taxation and are authorized to represent taxpayers before the IRS. CPAs generally have broader training and experience in accounting and finance with less tax knowledge than an EA. However, a person can be both an EA and CPA, but being one does not automatically qualify the person for the other role.

Responsibilities: Represent taxpayers relating to issues with IRS, provide tax advice in adherence to IRS rules and regulations, complete basic accounting tasks, perform audits and appeals on behalf of clients, prepare taxes, create a tax plan for clients

Education and Training: Pass the Special Enrollment Examination (SEE) or have at least five years of IRS experience

Average Salary (USA): $52,565 annually

Typical Hourly Rate: $35 an hour

Types: None

What is a financial controller? What is a comptroller?

A controller, or financial controller, holds a supervisory role within a business or company’s finance department. They are responsible for all accounting-related activities, including managerial accounting, high-level accounting, and finance activities. A controller oversees the work of the bookkeeping staff and is responsible for financial reporting, budgeting, and internal controls. Controllers play a critical role in ensuring compliance with financial regulations and company policies, crafting financial strategy, and typically reports to the Chief Financial Officer (CFO).

A comptroller is a high-level financial officer in an organization responsible for overseeing accounting tasks and financial reporting. They have broader responsibilities compared to a controller and are usually senior over controller positions. They may also be involved in budgeting, auditing, managing investments, financial analysis, and strategic planning. Some businesses and organizations use controller and comptroller interchangeably, while others consider comptroller as a higher position than a controller. Oftentimes, their duties overlap.

Both controllers and comptroller require bachelor’s degrees, usually in accounting. Most organizations do not require these positions to be CPAs. However, many organizations prefer their comptrollers have a Master’s degree in accounting, finance, or business administration.

Responsibilities: Oversee accounting tasks and financial reporting, monitor and control cash flow, oversee payroll and benefits, develop and maintain financial policies and procedures, manage the processing of all accounting transactions, maintain a system of internal controls

Education and Training: Bachelor’s degree, preferably Master’s degree in accounting, finance, or business administration

Average Salary (USA): $128,397 annually

Typical Hourly Rate: $53 an hour

Types: Financial controller, comptroller

What is a Chief Financial Officer (CFO)?

The Chief Financial Officer (CFO) is a company or organization’s most senior or highest-ranking financial officer. They are often the third highest position in a company. They oversee all aspects of financial management, including tracking cash flow, financial planning, budgeting, analyzing the company’s strengths and weaknesses, and strategic decision-making.

CFOs play a critical role in setting the financial direction of a company and communicating its financial performance to stakeholders. A “traditional” CFO is a person who works full-time for one business or company. A fractional or outsourced CFO is typically a part-time role for smaller firms. A fractional CFO performs the key duties of a CFO but can have several clients simultaneously.

CFOs must have a bachelor’s degree in a relevant course, such as accounting, finance, or business administration. Many also complete an MBA or a Master of Science in Finance (MSF). They should also have good management skills and extensive experience working in finance.

Responsibilities: Oversee an organization’s financial activities including financial planning, budgeting, analyzing the company’s financial strengths and weaknesses, and strategic adviser to the CEO and COO.

Education and Training: Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting, Finance, or Business Administration, MBA, MSF, extensive experience in finance

Average Salary (USA): $437,711 annually

Typical Hourly Rate: $210 an hour

Types: Full-time CFO, Fractional CFO, Interim CFO, Outsourced CFO

Hi, I’m Kimberly.

Thanks for stopping by. At Emerald Expectations, we love making a big impact on small businesses like yours by educating, growing profits, increasing cash flow, and reducing your tax liability.

If you’re always worrying that something important is falling through the cracks or you feel like your current tax or financial strategy is lacking, we can help you offload that stress so you can feel at peace knowing everything is being taken care of.

Click the link below to take our Fit Quiz and find out which of our packages is right for you.

Responsibilities
Education & Training
Average Salary
Typical Hourly Rate
Types
Bookkeeper
Data entry, recording daily financial transactions, updating ledgers, reconciling accounts, producing financial statements.
At least a high school diploma, some college or a college degree (not required), possibly with a certificate course in bookkeeping.
$43,971 annually
$24.31 an hour
General bookkeeper, Full charge bookkeeper, Certified bookkeeper
Accountant
Records, analyzes, and interprets financial information, document financial transactions, reviews financial documents, resolves discrepancies, monitors accounting practices, ensures compliance relevant laws and regulations
Bachelor’s degree in Accounting or similar, CPAs must pass the CPA exam and hold a license from the state board.
$62,711 annually
$30 an hour
CPA, Forensic accountant, Management accountant, Cost accountant, Investment accountant, Staff accountant
Enrolled Agent
Represent taxpayers relating to issues with IRS, provide tax advice in adherence to IRS rules and regulations, complete basic accounting tasks, perform audits and appeals on behalf of clients, prepare taxes, create a tax plan for clients
Pass the Special Enrollment Examination (SEE) or have at least five years of IRS experience
$52,565 annually
$35 an hour
None
Financial Controller
Oversee accounting tasks and financial reporting, monitor and control cash flow, oversee payroll and benefits, develop and maintain financial policies and procedures, manage the processing of all accounting transactions, maintain a system of internal controls
Bachelor’s degree, preferably Master’s degree in accounting, finance, or business administration
$128,397 annually
$53 an hour
Financial controller, comptroller
Chief Financial Officer
Oversee an organization’s financial activities including financial planning, budgeting, analyzing the company’s financial strengths and weaknesses, and strategic adviser to the CEO and COO.
Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting, Finance, or Business Administration, MBA, MSF, extensive experience in finance
$437,711 annually
$210 an hour
Full-time CFO, Fractional CFO, Interim CFO, Outsourced CFO

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