Excel Basics and the IF Function

Oh, have times changed. When I was a kid, my parents constantly told me, “no ifs and buts”. Clearly, Microsoft Excel wasn’t around at that time or I could’ve provided a better argument for using these words. Excel’s “IF” function is a useful feature and one my parents could have mastered. (Includes sample Excel worksheet)

What is the IF Function

Excel’s IF function is one of simplest and most useful spreadsheet functions. It can fill cell fields for you based on evaluating a condition. The wizard-like function requires you to fill 3 data elements:

Excel's IF function dialog

Field Definition
Logical_test A test on a cell value that is either TRUE or FALSE
Value_if_true The value Excel will put in a cell if the test is true
Value_if_false The value Excel will put in a cell if the test fails

Despite not having Microsoft Excel, my parents routinely employed this type of logic when calculating my allowance. Their version read:

IF you empty the garbage AND mow the lawn AND wash the dishes AND walk the dog, you get your full allowance. And since I grew up in New England, this logic would change with the seasons to account for things like leaves and snow.

Setting Up the IF Function

Although Excel can’t issue an allowance, it can calculate the amount using a logic test based on whether a cell met a condition. For example, I could create a spreadsheet with the tasks needed to get an allowance. If the task was completed, (TRUE situation) a value would be applied toward the allowance. If the task wasn’t completed, (FALSE situation), nothing would be added. These examples are noted by labels (1) and (2) in the screen snap below.

Sample spreadsheet  using IF function

Using the example above, you might express the logic in the following way:

IF cell B2 equals “Y”, then use the rate value in cell C2 in cell D2

IF cell B2 does not equal “Y”, then place 0 in cell D2

To enter your IF Function Arguments,

  1. Click the spreadsheet cell where you wish to use the formula
  2. From the Formulas tab, click Insert funtion…
  3. In the Insert Function dialog textbox, type “if
  4. Make sure your cursor is in the Logical_test textbox
  5. Click the spreadsheet cell you wish to evaluate. Excel will fill in the cell address such as “B2”
  6. Append the equals sign and your desired value in quotes. For example =”Y”.
  7. In the Value_if_true field, type the value you would like entered in your cell if B2 equals “Y”. In our example, I’ll click cell C3.
  8. In the Value_if_false: field enter the value the cell should have if B2 does not have a “Y”. I’ll enter 0. I could leave it blank, but the cell would show “FALSE”
  9. Scan the dialog to see if the Formula result= value (label 1 below) is what you expect. If not, check to see if any errors show to the right of the fields (label 2 below).
  10. IF Function arguments box filled in

  11. Click OK.
  12. Copy the formula to the other cells in your column.

But….but…what If…

The above spreadsheet might have been Version 1 for my parents. A new incentive program would appear based on some parent/child negotiations and neighborhood rates. I probably would’ve fought for pay on partial tasks. No doubt, my parents would counter with a penalty clause if something was less than half done.

Excel is flexible when it comes to IF statements and can evaluate more than a simple “Y” or “N”. For example, if we convert our previous Done? column to a % Done column with a number, we can accommodate these new requirements.

The new formula is basing the allowance off the % Done column. If the task completion number is greater than .5, a prorated amount was applied to the allowance. If the task completion rate was .5 or below, a negative amount was applied to the allowance. Loosely translated, a “half assed” performance cost money.

More complex IF function arguments

Excel’s IF function is a versatile and useful function. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll start using it in more complex scenarios. The examples presented here were foundational. But you can use IF functions to handle transactions such as applying sales tax, shipping charges or even nested IF functions with Boolean logic. And if you have kids, let them build the Excel spreadsheet and give them a bonus for using the IF function.


Related Excel Resource

Excel Sample File