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A Bookkeeper, a CPA, and a CFO walk into a …

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By Shane Bender

A business owner recently asked me:  What is the difference between a Bookkeeper, a CPA, and a CFO? I decided that sounds like a great article to write about.  I get some variation of this question quite often. There is confusion, and some people think these roles are all the same. Just as there are lawyers and doctors that specialize in different areas, the idea is the same in the financial arena. Also, there are different levels of experience in each specialty.

The Bookkeeper

A bookkeeper or entry-level accountant handles many of the following tasks:

  • Monthly Bank and Credit Card Reconciliations
  • Accounts Payable Bill Entry and Payment
  • Payroll processing
  • Invoicing and Collections
  • Accounting Journals and review of the Balance Sheet
  • Fixed Assets and Depreciation                                                                                          
  • Basically, this person handles all the transactional accounting and keeps it up-to-date. There are different types and levels of bookkeepers. I have working with one firm for 3 years that I have found reliable and consistent in their bookkeeping. You can always contact me at, and we can introduce you.


Most business owners think immediately of tax planning and preparation when we think of the CPA. There are many different types of CPAs. I have been a CPA since 2001, but my focus has always been more industry-focused after my stint at KPMG as an auditor. A CPA can be a CFO, but not all CFOs are CPAs. Also, many CPA firms will do bookkeeping in preparation for tax returns. The risk is that the bookkeeping is tax focused and delayed rather than operationally focused.  I have found that it can be more affordable and useful to have a bookkeeping firm separate from the tax CPA firm.  This is not always the case, but it is a factor.

There are a variety of CPA firms. I am a CPA and work closely with them. If you are a small business owner, my suggestion is to hire a CPA for the following services:

  • Tax Planning and Preparation – Make sure they are really doing tax planning.
  • External Compilation, Review, or Audit – Many times this is required for investors or financing.
  • Project oriented consulting such a mergers & acquistions, due dilligence, valuations, etc. 


The CFO is much more operationally minded and has a goal to help the organization in the following ways:

  • Financial Forecasting and Modeling – This provides insight into your current and projected financials.
  • Financial Reporting and Analysis – A good CFO takes the information the bookkeeper/accountant provides and gives you commentary and context. Also, many times this review can lead to key action items.
  • Internal Controls Review. If you are a small organization, you may have one person handling payments, receipts, reconciliation, and reporting. This means there is nobody reviewing the accounting, which could lead to the risk of fraud. This can happen in any organization. Check out what I wrote concerning fraud in nonprofits.
  • Cash Forecasting and Management – A good forecast model will forecast cash monthly and even weekly if needed. In the event of cash challenges, a CFO will look for financial opportunities with a bank or even investors if applicable.
  • Process Improvement – In a small fast-growing organization, key financial processes related to invoicing, receipts, payables, payroll, time & expense, and month-end need to be revisited regularly.
  • Coordination – A CFO will help coordinate with other professionals in areas such as taxes, insurance, audits, and banking.
  • Connections – We live in a world where connections are very valuable. How do you find the right person for marketing, human resources, training, coaching, staff development, and/or business consulting? The best CFO’s are highly connected and can help with these connections.
  • Training – It is important to have a team that is functioning efficiently and communicating well. It is important to train and develop accounting personnel so they can grow and the organization grows.

Don’t Leave One Out

As you can see, there are differences between these three financial roles.  Bookkeeping is essential to any organization so that you have consistent and current information.  A CPA firm is important for many areas such as tax planning, audits, reviews, valuations, and compilations. Finally, A CFO will truly provide the financial insights to gain more clarity so you can make the most informed decisions and grow with more peace. The good news is that you can hire a fractional CFO that is quite affordable. Reach out to for a free CFO Services Consultation.

If you want to learn more about forecasting for business and nonprofits, check out my award-nominated book and audiobook Forecast your Future: How Small Businesses Exchange Stress and Chaos for Cash and Clarity.  Also, check out my course for even more guidance.