The IF function is useful for making quick decisions or performing comparisons in Microsoft Excel. It’s an easy but versatile logical comparison function for handling many scenarios, ranging from financial models to assigning allowances. In this tutorial, I’ll show how to use the IF function in Excel and a simple adaptation. (Includes practice worksheet)
What is the IF Function?
The IF function is one of the simplest and most useful logical functions. It can fill cell items for you based on evaluating a condition such as a cell’s content and logical operators. What’s appealing about the function is that it can be used with other functions to handle more complex scenarios. You might think of it as a formula building block and you can find it in the Logical category.
The wizard-like dialog allows you to fill 3 Function Arguments or data elements, but you could use the formula bar once you master it. This is the easiest way to learn an Excel formula because you can see if it returns your expected result. For example, at the bottom left of the dialog, a line reads “Formula result =.”
The IF Function Arguments
|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 IF 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 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 formula condition.
For example, I could create a spreadsheet with the chores needed to get an allowance. If the chores were completed (TRUE situation), a value would be applied toward the allowance. If the chore wasn’t completed (FALSE situation), nothing would be added.
These examples are noted by labels  and  in the screen snap below.
Using the example above, you might express the logic in the following way:
IF cell B2 equals “Y”, then use the Rate value from cell C2 ($3.00) in D2.
IF cell B2 does not equal “Y”, then place 0 in cell D2.
As you can see in this example, the IF logical condition is either TRUE or FALSE. And it pays to take out the garbage.
To help evaluate conditions, Excel uses a list of common operators. You probably know these as we probably used them in math class. These operators will be evaluated to a logical “true” or “false”. In the table below, B2 and C2 in the Example column are cell references.
|= (equals)||B2 = “YES”|
|< (less than)||B2 < 12|
|> (greater than)||B2 > 112|
|<= (less than or equal to)||B2 <= 12|
|>= (greater than or equal to)||B2 >= 12|
|<> (not equal to)||B2 <> C2|
How To Enter IF Function Arguments
- Click the spreadsheet cell where you wish to use the Excel formula.
- From the Formulas tab, click Insert function…
- In the Insert Function dialog text box, type “if“.
Note: On Office 365, there is now a Logical button on the Formulas tab. You can select IF from the drop-down menu.
- Make sure your cursor is in the Logical_test text box.
- Click the spreadsheet cell you wish to evaluate. Excel will fill in the cell reference such as “B2”.
- Add the equals sign = and your desired value in quotes. For example =”Y”.
- 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.
- 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”.
- Review the dialog to see if the Formula result= value (label  below) is what you expect. If not, check to see if any errors show to the right of the fields (label  below).
- Click OK.
- Copy the formula to the other cells in your column.
✪ Tip: Even though the Value_if_false field is optional, it’s best to provide a value. Otherwise, Excel will use FALSE in the cell value.
Excel IF With Numeric Values
The above spreadsheet might have been Version 1 for my parents. A new incentive program would appear based on some parent/child negotiations and competitive neighborhood rates. I probably would’ve requested pay for partial chores. 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 such as:
The new formula returns the allowance based on the % Done in Column B. If the chore completion number is greater than .5, a prorated amount is applied to the allowance.
If the chore completion rate was .5 or below, a negative amount was applied to the allowance. Loosely translated, an “incomplete” performance costs money. You could also apply colors using conditional formatting.
There are a couple of reasons why the IF function doesn’t work as expected.
- You don’t have quotes around a text string. For example, you used B2=Y instead of B2=”Y”. The quotes aren’t needed if you use the values TRUE or FALSE as Excel recognizes them.
- You have a data type mismatch. For example, your comparison operator was comparing a number in one cell such as “twelve”, but the comparison cell had 12. However, Excel is forgiving if you’re evaluating number formats such as 1.5 versus $1.50.
As you’ve seen, this is a versatile and useful function. Once you get the hang of how to use IF function in Excel, you’ll start using it in more scenarios. The two examples presented here were foundational. But you can use IF functions to handle other transactions such as applying sales tax, stock values, shipping charges, fixing Excel DIV 0 errors, or even nesting 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.