The Basics of the Excel IF Function

The IF function is useful for making quick decisions or performing simple comparisons in Excel. The solution lies in understanding how to use the IF function in Excel. It’s an easy but versatile logical function for handling many scenarios, ranging from detailed calculations to even assigning allowances. (Tutorial includes Excel worksheet with formula examples.)

What is Excel’s IF Function?

The IF function is one of the simplest and most useful Excel functions. It can fill cell fields for you based on evaluating a condition such as a cell’s content. You can find it in the Logical category.

The wizard-like dialog allows you to fill 3 Function Arguments or data elements. This is the easiest way to learn Excel formulas because you can see if it returns your expected result. For example, at the bottom left of the dialog, a line reads “Formula result =.”

Blank Function Arguments dialog for IF function.Pin
Blank IF function dialog with empty Formula result

The IF Function Arguments

FieldDefinition
Logical_testA test on a cell value that is either TRUE or FALSE.
Value_if_trueThe value Excel will put in a cell if the test is true.
Value_if_falseThe 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 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 formula 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.

Excel IF logical test examples.Pin
Logical test examples

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 enter your IF Function Arguments,

  1. Click the spreadsheet cell where you wish to use the Excel formula.
  2. From the Formulas tab, click Insert function…
  3. In the Insert Function dialog text box, type “if”.
  4. Make sure your cursor is in the Logical_test text box.
  5. Click the spreadsheet cell you wish to evaluate. Excel will fill in the cell reference such as “B2”.
  6. Add 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. Review 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).
Excel If function arguments.Pin
Example of a completed IF formula and result
  1. Click OK.
  2. 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 Example 2

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 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 such as:

=IF(B2>0.5,B2*C2,-C2)

The new formula returns the allowance based on the % Done in Column B. 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 costs money. You could also apply colors using conditional formatting.

IF condition based on percentagePin
Using a numeric value instead of Y/N values

Excel’s IF function is a versatile and useful function. Once you get the hang of it, 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, shipping charges, fixing Excel DIV 0 errors, 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.