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Differences among Bookkeepers vs. Accountants vs. CPAs

People often confuse the roles of bookkeepers, accountants and certified public accountants (CPAs).

It’s not surprising since many of their duties overlap, but the overall responsibilities of each role and the level of authority held by the positions differ. They all share fiscal responsibility – in degrees – for the company or organization for which they work.

Often considered by accountants and CPAs as just technicians or clerks.  Bookkeepers perform some of the same daily tasks as do accountants and certified public accountants. Many bookkeepers work as freelancers for small businesses in need of financial recordkeeping.

Bookkeepers maintain daily accounting records, posting debits and credits, generating invoices for clients and checks for vendors as well as handling payroll. Many small business owners often do those functions.  Bookkeepers typically lack the education of an accountant or CPA, as they gain on-the-job experience. Professional organizations of accountants help to improve professional recognition for bookkeepers as well as providing certification programs of abilities and skills.

Accountants have a four-year college degree. While many accountants have an educational background in accounting, some are more general business majors. Companies that generate more than a million dollar in sales each year might have an accountant on staff or hire the services of a professional accountant from an accounting firm managed by a certified public accountant. As the company grows, the accounting department expands to handle the increased fiscal responsibilities within the organization. Accountants work with accounting clerks and technicians who handle daily financial entries. Accountants oversee or perform billing, make general ledger entries, review accounts payable activity completed by clerks or technicians or handle payroll. A mid-level position in the accounting department, accountants report to accounting managers, company controllers or financial directors, all of whom might be certified public accountants.

Certified Public Accountants
Certified public accountants have a focused education in accounting and must pass the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination. CPAs must meet state education and experience requirements before they can sit for the exam. Accountants not meeting these requirements cannot use the CPA designation legally. A CPA can work within a company or create his own company to offer accounting services to the public. Certification is renewable every two years, subject to state requirements. CPAs have a higher level of responsibility than bookkeepers or accountants; because of their certification, they perform auditing, tax and financial services for individuals, corporations and other business or nonprofit organizations. CPAs work with accountants and bookkeepers, auditing and overseeing financial records.

Though a bookkeeper might perform the same duties as an accountant, accountants and CPAs often do not consider bookkeepers as accounting professionals. But when a bookkeeper signs checks or handles payroll, she has the same liability as an accountant or a CPA with the same responsibilities under IRS law. In an accounting organization or department, duties are segregated to reduce fraud, errors or misappropriation of funds and to ensure strong financial control under generally accepted accounting principles. Working for a small organization, a bookkeeper might handle the duties of several jobs that would be segregated in an accounting or corporate environment.


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