What is the Average Accountant Salary?

accountant average salary

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), the median wage for accountants is $70,500 per year or $33.89 per hour.

Of course, how much accountants actually earn depends on experience, location, position, and industry.

Highest and Lowest Average Accountant Salary

Along with median earnings, the BLS also reports the highest and the lowest salaries for accountants, which are as follows:

  • The lowest 10% of accountants earned less than $43,650 per year
  • The highest 10% of accountants earn more than $122,840

The lower end reflects inexperienced accountants working for low-paying industries like the government while the higher end reflects experienced accountants working in higher paying industries like finance and insurance.

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Accountant Starting Salary by Degree Type

As it is with most professions, how much you earn as an accountant depends on your level of education and experience. For accounting, the more educated you are, the higher your earning potential.

NACE’s annual starting salary survey, which collects data from employers to calculate projected starting salaries for all college majors, found the following:

Accountant Starting Salary for Bachelor’s Degree Holders

Accountants fresh out of college with a bachelor’s degree earn an average starting salary of $57,511. Fifty percent of recent accounting graduates earn between $54,000 to $60,000. To maximize your earnings, consider entering the chemical (pharmaceutical) manufacturing industry or the information industry. These industries pay accountants a mean salary of $62,115 and $61,250 respectively.

Accountant Starting Salary for Master’s Degree Holders

Students who pursue their master’s degree boost their average starting salary up to $69,605, a 21% increase. Fifty percent earn between $59,500 and $73,620. Students who opt for the finance, insurance, and real estate industry can expect to earn an average salary of $94,833.

Accountant Salary by Specialty

The type of accounting you go into greatly affects your average earnings and income potential.

Average CPA Salary

CPA stands for Certified Public Accountant. Accountants who decide to become CPAs must complete 150 semester hours of college coursework, pass a national license exam, and meet other state requirements. The extra work pays off because becoming a CPA improves job prospects and earning potential. The BLS doesn’t make a distinction between accountants and CPAs, but AccountingEdu suggests that CPAs earn more than regular accountants.

PayScale also tracks salary data for CPAs and general accountants. PayScale reports the average CPA salary at $64,765 per year and average accountant salary at $50,591*. This means that CPAs earn about 28% more than a regular accountant.

Payscale’s reported average salary for accountants appears much lower than the median wage reported by the BLS. It’s important to note that PayScale collects self-reported salary information from employees while the BLS is a government organization that collects data directly from employers. Payscale’s average accountant salary figure also excludes CPA salary data while the BLS figure includes all types of accountants.

Average Tax Preparer Salary

Tax preparers earn significantly less than accountants. Data from the BLS shows that tax preparers earn an annual median wage of just $39,390. That’s a $31,110 difference in salary between a tax preparer and an accountant. The lowest 10% of tax preparers earn less than $20,550 per year while the highest 10% earn more than $81,720.

Average Forensic Accountant Salary

Forensic accountants are part detective and part accountant. They analyze financial records to see if they’re compliant, investigate fraud, and testify as expert witnesses in court. On average, forensic accountants earn $65,645 per year. The lower 10% earn less than $45,000 and the top 10% earn upwards of $106,000.

Average Management Accountant Salary

Management accountants provide financial information that business leaders need to make strategic decisions. They help with budgeting, risk management, profitability analysis, and more. To do this job, you need a bachelor’s degree in accounting and need to become a certified management accountant (CMA).

Management accountants earn an average salary of $59,282 with average additional compensation of $5,300 between bonuses and profit sharing. Eighty percent earn between $38,000 and $89,000.

Accountant Salary by Industry

Where you work makes a world of difference in the accounting world. Some industries just pay accountants a whole lot more than others.

Average Accountant Salary in the Top-Paying Industries

According to 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these are the top paying industries for accountants:

  • School and Employee Bus Transportation: $109,250 annual average wage
  • Federal Executive Branch: $100,080 annual average wage
  • Securities, Commodity Contracts, Financial Investments: $97,00 annual average wage
  • Other Investment Pools and Funds: $96,770 annual average wage
  • Other Pipeline Transportation: $93,590 annual average wage

Average Accountant Salary in the Lowest-Paying Industries

The following industries pay accountants the least:

  • State Technical and Trade Schools: $48,440 annual average wage
  • State Psychiatric & Substance Abuse Hospitals: $53,320 annual average wage
  • Casino Hotels: $54,850 annual average wage
  • Gasoline Stations: $55,020 annual average wage
  • Services for the Elderly and Persons with Disabilities: $57,830 annual average wage

Average Accountant Salary in the Most Popular Industry

Fewer than 54,000 accountants and auditors work in the top-paying industries, so the best-paying jobs are hard to come by. The Accounting, Tax Preparation, Bookkeeping, and Payroll Services industry provides the most jobs for accountants and auditors. In 2018, this industry employed 325,930 accountants and auditors with an average accountant salary of $83,710. That’s approximately 26% of the accountant and auditor workforce.

Average Self-Employed Accountant Salary

According to the BLS, 7% of accountants opt for the non-traditional route, starting their own small business or working on a contract basis. According to PayScale*, self-employed Certified Public Accountants bring in an average salary of $119,831. The lower 10% earn less than $60,000 while the top 10% earn more than $200,000. PayScale also estimates that the average self-employed accountant (not including CPAs) earns an average salary of $58,600.

The income might look enticing, but it’s not all going straight to the bank. Self-employed workers don’t have an employer to cover certain taxes, contribute to a retirement account, or sponsor a health insurance plan. They need to cover those costs themselves, which can significantly reduce their net income.

*Based on seven individuals reporting income data for this job type

Average Accountant Salary by State and City

Your earnings aren’t just affected by the industry you choose or your education. Where you work matters too. Some states pay accountants and CPAs more than others. Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll have extra cash to spend—or use to pay down your student loans. It could indicate that the cost of living in those states or cities is just higher.

States with the Highest Average Accountant Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the following are the highest-paying states and territories for accountants as of May 2018:

  • District of Columbia: $98,130 annual average wage
  • New York: $96,300 annual average wage
  • New Jersey: $90,400 annual average wage
  • Virginia: $85,640 annual average wage
  • Connecticut: $84,890 annual average wage

Cities with the Highest Average Accountant Salary

If you’re looking to earn top dollar, don’t count out other states just yet. Here are the five highest-paying metropolitan areas for accountants:

  • New York/Newark/Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA: $99,900 annual average wage
  • Salinas, CA: $94,710 annual average wage
  • Bridgeport/Stamford/Norwalk, CT: $95,390 annual average wage
  • Washington/Arlington/Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV: $93,180 annual average wage
  • San Francisco/Oakland/Hayward, CA: $92,630 annual average wage

States with the Lowest Average Accountant Salary

Accountants earn the least in these states:

  • Mississippi: $59,960 annual average wage
  • North Dakota: $60,550 annual average wage
  • South Carolina: $64,220 annual average wage
  • Hawaii: $64,410 annual average wage
  • Idaho: $64,640 annual average wage

Remember, lower earnings aren’t necessarily a bad thing if the cost of living in the state is low. However, don’t assume that’s the case. Accountants working in Hawaii may make less on average than accountants working in 46 other states, but Hawaii still has the highest cost of living in the United States.

Is Becoming an Accountant Worth It?

You’ve seen how much an accountant can make, but is it enough to justify taking out loans for your undergraduate and/or graduate degree? Let’s take a look at how prepared graduates are to pay back their debt.

Job Outlook for Accountants in the United States

Job opportunities for accountants show no sign of slowing down. The demand for accountants will rise as more businesses go public, the economy improves, and the globalization of business continues. Companies will need experienced accountants that specialize in their niche needs as well as entry-level accountants fresh out of college. According to the BLS, from 2016 to 2026, employment is expected to grow by 10%, which is 3% faster than the average for all professions.

Debt-to-Income Ratio for Accountants

Paying off your student debt is a numbers game. Will you make enough after graduation to be able to pay back your loans? A study completed by Credible.com suggests that accounting puts you in a much better spot to pay back your debt than other majors.

Credible’s study calculated and analyzed the student debt-to-income ratio for different degree programs. Their findings show that students who graduate with a master’s in accounting have a 7.91% student debt-to-income ratio (the fourth lowest of all degrees in the study). This is significantly lower than the average for all graduate students, which is 10.88%.

Undergraduates who studying accounting make out well too. Students with a four-year business degree, which includes accounting, have around an 8.85% student debt-to-income ratio. This is the sixth lowest of all the degrees in the study and 1.1% lower than the average for all undergraduates. It’s also higher than accountants with a master’s degree, suggesting that earning your master’s in accounting is certainly worth it too.

Return on Investment for Accountants

To get an even better idea of whether an accounting degree is worth it, use PayScale’s Best Value Colleges for Business Majors tool. It shows you the return on investment (ROI) of a business major, which includes accounting, at different schools across the country. It takes the four-year cost, typical years to graduate, average loan amount, and average alumni salaries into account, so you’re left with a good idea of which schools are worth your money. The higher your 20-year net ROI, the more worth it is to study accounting at that college.

Yes, An Accounting Degree is Usually Worth It

Thanks to the field’s high job stability and high earning potential, becoming an accountant is usually worth it. Sure, studying accounting doesn’t mean you’ll graduate debt-free, but it does mean that you’ll graduate better equipped to afford your monthly student loan payments than other graduates.

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