What Are Some Practical Uses for Excel?

Excel has a reputation for use in accounting departments, and while its math functions are vital for bookkeeping, the program's spreadsheets and charts help out with everything from building a grocery list to analyzing scientific records. Moving from Word to Excel for day-to-day tasks might seem intimidating at first, but once you get used to working in a spreadsheet, Excel makes organization and calculation far simpler.

Highlighted Balance Sheet
Excel can cut down on mistakes by automating calculations.
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Make a List for Home or Work

One of Excel's simplest yet most fundamental abilities is organizing data. Excel can't compete with Microsoft Access for building complex databases, but for everyday organization, Excel has plenty of features and is far easier to use. To make a list, just write in whichever cells you need -- whether you need a basic two-column grocery list or an inventory or a catalog of your entire library, Excel helps keep your data in place, and provides sorting and searching.

For a fancier layout without extra work, start with a template by searching on the "New" page of the File menu in Excel 2010 or 2013. Microsoft provides numerous free templates for building lists, ranging from sports rosters to invoices to telephone directories.

Graph Your Data in a Chart

Enter a range of data into Excel and the program can automatically visualize it as a chart or graph. After you type in your data, select it and pick one of the chart styles on the Insert tab. Excel 2013 makes the process even easier with the "Recommended Charts" button that scans your data and previews the most relevant charts.

Correctly laying out data for a chart takes some practice. For example, to build a pie chart, use two columns: the first containing labels and the second containing percentages. Similarly, a line chart only uses two columns: one for labels and another for points on the Y axis. If your data includes X and Y coordinates, use a scatter chart instead.

Automate Bookkeeping With Functions

Excel's functions automate math formulas, simplifying bookkeeping, accounting and other data tracking. One of the most common functions, SUM, adds other cells together, and has a one-button shortcut: select a group of cells and press "Alt-Equals" to fill in the sum. Some functions analyze cells' contents and can even work with text. For example, EXACT checks whether two cells have the same contents and returns "TRUE" or "FALSE."

To enter a function, type an equals sign, the function's name and an open parenthesis, and then fill in its variables by clicking on other cells to refer to their contents. For a guided explanation to using any function, select it from the Function Library on the Formulas tab.

Calculate With Complex Formulas

To get the most out of Excel's functions, string them together in multi-part formulas to complete complex calculations. Almost any set of functions can work together. For example, add a column of cells and then round it to the nearest hundred by combining SUM with ROUND: =ROUND(SUM(A1:A5), -2) rounds the sum of cells A1 through A5 to two places left of the decimal, resulting in a round hundreds place.

Formulas can also reference other formulas. One use is to quickly track billing and payments for your business. Sum a customer's invoices in one column, sum payments in a second column and then use the IF function to output a simple answer: =IF(B10>=A10,"PAID","UNPAID") checks whether the sum of payments in B10 meets or exceeds the sum of charges in A10 and reports either "PAID" or "UNPAID" in plain text.