How to find work/life balance in an accounting career?
August 12, 2012 5:43 PM   Subscribe

Just how bad is the work/life balance in accounting and related finance careers?

After having just finished my associate's degree in general studies, I'm leaning heavily toward going for my bachelor's degree in accounting. I wouldn't exactly consider it my calling, but I've done well in the introductory accounting course I've taken, and I like accounting because of how versatile I've heard it is, it being a specific and in-demand vocation make job prospects good, and it seems to offer a decent $40-50k entry-level income with just an undergrad degree. I'm a little concerned about what I've read about the work/life balance, though. I know you can't have it all, that every job has its ups and downs.

But I would not look forward at all to 80 hour workweeks for months at a time, as seems to be the norm in the accounting busy seasons. I'd honestly be willing to forgo promotions or take pay cuts if that's what it takes to have the free time to raise a family or to pursue other things in life. The AARP article about people on their death beds wishing they had spent less time working and more time with their families is hard for me to ignore. So here's what I'm wondering:

1. Just how bad and widespread is the busy season across accounting jobs? How many months does busy season typically last, and how many hours per week are realistic to expect? Do the Big4 have it markedly worse, or is busy season uniformly demanding across industries?

2. If the work/life balance of accounting is about equally bad no matter who you work for, does it get any better after a few years? How many years would someone have to, say, be a slave to the Big4 before they could expect to have a good chance of moving on to a higher position or related career offering greater flexibility?

3. Considering the versatility of an accounting degree, which specific branches of accounting or related finance careers would allow the most freedom and flexibility in work/life balance?

Any advice appreciated!
posted by Ryogen to Work & Money (5 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I can only offer my perspective, which is to switch to Finance and try get an Industry job if you want work life balance.

In terms of hours worked, it goes Audit > Institution > Industry.

If you can land a finance job in Industry (that means you're working as a support function) you may get in under the umbrella of the union negotiated pay benefits in that industry. I'm in Australia but I'm going to hazard a guess that the same dichotomy exists between Institutional finance and Industry finance where you are.

1) Crunch time isn't as severe in Finance as it is in Accounting.
2) Unionized Industries can provide good benefits (pensions, 32 days leave pa, etc)
3) The nature of being a support function means there's overall less pressure to perform: plenty of people just do the minimum 8 hours, many part timers, etc.

But potential for career advancement just isn't going to be as good as typical Institutional work, where you work in a glittering skyscraper in the CBD and come to work in a razor sharp suit. You're more likely to be interacting with hourly workers in oil stained overalls in a factory in the middle of a seedy industrial district, probably with the highest crime rates (and lowest labour costs) in your state.

I've seen several Chartered Accountants quit their stressful Big4 Accounting work and come over into Industry and they say it's like a vacation every day of the year in comparison.
posted by xdvesper at 6:23 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have worked as an accountant for over 10 years now, in a variety of industries. I have not done big 4 accounting. I currently work 40 hour weeks. At some jobs I have worked closer to 80. I love accounting, it makes sense to me, and I have had many jobs I've enjoyed.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 6:58 PM on August 12, 2012

An ex girlfriend of mine is an accountant, doing auditing for a non-Big 4 firm.

Her busy season starts in January and runs through the end of April. During this time, she consistently worked 60 to 70 hours per week. Once her busy season is over, her workload was still about 45 to 50 hours per week.

I don't think she ever worked for a Big 4 firm, though her current firm isn't the first firm she has worked for.

Compensation wise, she's not exactly loaded, but she makes enough to where she can cover her mortgage payment, car payment, etc., and still have enough money to shop at places like Ann Taylor, Coach, Kate Spade, etc., rather than Kohl's.

Work does keep her pretty busy, even in her off season, which put constraints on her social life (which is part of why she dumped me).
posted by AMSBoethius at 7:02 PM on August 12, 2012

There are plenty of jobs working for the local, county, and state governments. Those are almost always 9-5.
posted by JJ86 at 9:50 AM on August 13, 2012

There must be accounting jobs in nearly every industry. My husband's been working as an accountant with a bachelor's degree, but not a CPA, for most of two decades, first in the banking industry, then, when the mortgage crisis hit, in a transportation-related company, and now a telephone-related company. His hours are generally close to forty hours a week; when he occasionally has to work late, it's usually not for more than a day or two at a time.

I think not going for the CPA was an important decision for him. It looked as though the jobs that called for the CPA qualification tended too much toward eighty-hour work weeks. He is absolutely anything but lazy, but he wanted to be available for his family. It's been very good for the family.

In the transportation-related job, everyone was expected to work forty hours a week, until a new boss came in, whose idea of management was to "make" the employees work harder. If my husband had been happy and able to somehow force his own people to double their work load (without any increase in compensation, of course), he might still have that job.

Accounting is a good career choice, as long as it's something you enjoy doing.
posted by Ery at 7:17 AM on August 14, 2012

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