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How To Format Your Excel Spreadsheet: 10 Tips for Finance Professionals

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It’s easy to miss critical details when analyzing and reconciling financial transactions, especially during month-end or year-end close. The pressure to meet deadlines sometimes results in miscalculations, typos and other errors.

To prevent these errors, you need to format your Excel spreadsheet properly. 

This means using bold headings, color coding, and other formatting techniques to make it easy to distinguish between different sections of your spreadsheet and fix potential errors, so you can turn in accurate financial reports.

Below, we cover 10 ways to format your spreadsheet, including guidelines and Excel best practices to make your financial reports look polished and professional. 

10 Ways To Format Your Excel Spreadsheet

1. Format Numbers Based on Data Type (Like Monetary Values)

Number formatting lets you customize the appearance of numerical values on your spreadsheet. For example, you can:

  • Apply currency symbols to monetary values
  • Display monetary amounts with two decimal places for cents
  • Include separators like commas to denote thousands, millions, or billions

For example, say you're preparing for month-end close. Financial statements should follow certain guidelines when it comes to how the numbers are presented. 

Currencies are often punctuated with the comma style, without any decimals. The currency symbol only needs to appear once on the first row and the Net Income row.

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How To Apply Number Formatting in Excel

Click and drag your mouse over the range of cells you want to format. 

Or,  click on the first cell and then hold down the Shift key (for Windows) or Command key (for Mac) to choose the cells you want. 

Next, click on the Home tab on the Excel ribbon and navigate to the dropdown that says "General." This dropdown lets you select your desired number format.  

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Click on the dropdown to view the options and choose the accounting number format. It ensures all the symbols and decimal points neatly line up in a column, so it’s easier to read and compare the numbers.

Alternatively, right-click on the selected cells and click on "Number Format."

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A dialog box will appear with a list of different number formatting options and more flexibility to customize the values. Click on the accounting format. 

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The default number of decimal places is two (since it is in currency format) and the symbol is the general dollar sign ($). To change the currency symbol, click on the dropdown arrow and choose the appropriate one.

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To remove the decimal points, click on the dropdown and select “0.”

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Once satisfied, click "OK" to apply the formatting to the selected cells.

There are also other relevant formatting options you can select from the list, with different use cases:

 

Number Format Use Case
Number Used for general numerical values. It also allows you to specify the number of decimal places, include a thousands separator, and choose how to display negative numbers
Currency Used for monetary values and includes a currency symbol, a specified number of decimal places, and a thousands separator
Short date Used for displaying the day, month, and year (e.g., "4/13/2024")
Long date Includes the day of the week and the full name of the month (e.g., "Tuesday, April 13, 2024")
Time Formats time values, allowing you to specify the hours, minutes, and seconds in various formats (e.g., "13:45:00" for 1:45 PM)
Comma Adds a thousands separator to large numerical values (e.g., "1,000" instead of "1000")
Percentage Converts numerical values into percentages and displays them with a percentage symbol (e.g., "50%" for 0.5)
Fraction Formats numerical values as fractions (e.g., "1/2" for 0.5)
Special Offers additional formatting options, such as displaying numbers as fractions, ZIP codes, phone numbers, or postal codes
Custom Lets you create your own custom formats to display numbers exactly the way you want

 

2. Color Code Text To Distinguish Different Categories of Data

Color coding text cells in Excel makes it easier to identify and analyze different types of data. For example, say you want to analyze sales data for different products. You can use different colors to differentiate the sales performance of each product category.

How To Color Code Text in Excel

First, review your data and identify categories that you want to color code. 

Click and drag your mouse over the range of cells you want to format. Or, click on the first cell and then hold down the Shift key (for Windows) or Command key (for Mac) to choose the cells you want.

Next, go to the "Home" tab on the Excel ribbon. In the Home tab, click on the dropdown button next to the Fill Color icon. Then select the color you want.

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When choosing colors, follow these Excel color coding best practices:

  • Use shades of green to represent positive numbers or gains
  • Use shades of red to represent negative numbers or losses
  • Use neutral colors such as gray, black, or white for neutral values or elements that don't require emphasis
  • Use bright or bold colors such as blue, orange, or yellow to highlight important information or significant data points
  • Use gradients or shades of a single color (e.g., light blue to dark blue) to represent trends, variations, or changes in data over time
  • Use contrasting colors to differentiate between different categories or data series for comparative analysis
  • Use dark text on a light background or vice versa to provide the best contrast and readability and reduce eye strain

3. Format Your Text To Improve Readability

Clear and well-formatted text makes it easier for stakeholders to quickly understand and interpret the information in your financial reports. 

For example, using formatting such as bold, italics, and underlining, lets you emphasize headers, titles, or key information, making it easier to navigate through large datasets and identify important sections.

How To Do Text Formatting in Excel

Some common ways to format text in Excel include:

1. Bold and Italicize

Bold text is used for emphasis, and italic text indicates that there's something distinctive about the data. For instance, on a monthly cash flow spreadsheet, you might want to use bold for final values like total income and italic for preliminary values like total revenue, like this:

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To do this, select the cell(s) containing the text you want to format. Then go to the "Home" tab on the Excel ribbon. Click the "B" icon to make the text bold.

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To italicize the text, click on the “...” sign on the Home ribbon, then click on "I."

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2. Font and Font Size

From the "Home" tab on the Excel ribbon, click the "Font Name" dropdown to select the desired font.

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Click on the “Font Size” dropdown beside it to change the size.

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3. Change Text Color

In the Home tab, click on the dropdown button next to the Font Color icon. Then, select the color you want.

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4. Apply Conditional Formatting To Highlight Errors

Conditional formatting formats cells automatically when their values meet certain conditions. For example, in the variance column of a budget vs. actual report, you can highlight variances greater than $1,000 with light red fill and dark red text colors.

How To Use Conditional Formatting

First, select the entire column that you want to apply this rule to. In the Home tab, click on the Conditional Formatting icon

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For the above example, select Highlight Cell Rules and Greater Than.

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A box will appear on your screen for you to set rules. Following our example of budget variances greater than $1,000, in the empty box, enter 1000 and use the drop-down menu on the right to select a specific formatting option (in this case light red fill with dark red text). Click “OK”.

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You can always create additional formatting rules using the other available options. As you get more proficient with Excel, you'll even be able to create custom formatting conditions with your own unique formulas.

5. Apply Filters To Let Stakeholders Easily Analyze Financial Data

Filters let stakeholders consuming your financial reports easily sort or filter specific columns based on criteria such as category, date, or amount, to identify trends, outliers, and patterns in the data. This way, you can compare performance across different categories, periods, or segments.

How To Format Your Excel Spreadsheet Using Filters

Highlight the range of cells containing the data you want to filter, then navigate to the "Data" tab in the Excel ribbon and click on "Filter." 

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This adds drop-down arrows to the header row of each column in the selected range. 

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Click on the drop-down arrow in the header of the column you want to filter. This will display a list of unique values or a search box, depending on the data type.

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Choose the filter options that meet your criteria. You can select specific values, sort data in ascending or descending order, or use text filters such as “contains”, “begins with”, or “ends with”. Then click "OK" or "Apply" to apply the filter. 

Excel will filter the data based on your selected criteria, hiding rows that do not meet the specified conditions. To remove filters, click on the filter drop-down arrow in the header of the filtered column and select "Clear Filter."

6. Format Your Data as a Table

The table feature in Excel is useful for making large volumes of data more readable, sortable and user-friendly. For example, say you want to categorize some individual assets by their acquisition date, original value, current market value, etc. 

Plus, if you want to use Microsoft Copilot to draw AI-powered insights from your data, you’ll need to format your data as a table. 

How To Format Your Data as a Table

Select a cell that's within the data range you want to turn into a table. In the Home tab, click on the Format as Table icon.

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Pick a format from the table styles provided in the next pop-up box.

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If there are no blank cells in your data, Excel will automatically detect the required range for the table. Otherwise, you'll need to input your data range manually.

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Make sure you select My Table Has Headers in the pop-up box (pictured above). Click OK, and a table will be created.

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Formatting your table this way makes it easier to read, as well as sort or filter the data by color for any of the columns. 

7. Use Format Painter To Apply Formatting Between Cells

Format Painter saves time by allowing you to copy the formatting of one cell or range and apply it to another with just a few clicks. This eliminates the need to manually format each cell individually, especially when dealing with large datasets.

Plus if you have complex formatting, such as custom number formats, conditional formatting, or merged cells, Format Painter will replicate these settings automatically. 

How To Copy Formatting With the Format Painter

Highlight the cell(s) you want to copy the format from, then click on the Format Painter icon located in the Home tab. 

Next, hover your cursor over any cell and you'll see an active paintbrush. Click to highlight the cells you want to apply the new formatting to.

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To lock the Format Painter and apply new formatting to multiple groups of cells, follow these steps:

  • Highlight the area you want to copy the formatting from.
  • Instead of clicking the Format Painter icon once, double click on it.
  • Click once to highlight the cells you're copying to. The paintbrush will remain active and you can continue to copy formatting to other cells or groups of cells.
  • When finished, press the Escape key to get rid of the active paintbrush.

8. Use Balance Check Formatting To Prevent Errors

When building any spreadsheet, Balance Check Formatting is a useful feature that can help you avoid data entry errors. It's easy to actively check for common errors with Balance Check Formatting if you understand how these mistakes happen. 

How To Use Balance Check Formatting

Let's assume you're putting together a budget for capital spending

As each department submits its numbers, you track them on a spreadsheet, carefully itemizing departmental details and subtotals that make up the company's grand totals. 

To ensure that the grand totals aren't missing an item or a department, you can create a Balance Check formula and make it visible by placing the formula right below the grand totals following these steps:

  • Below the grand totals, create a formula that sums up all the individual company spending lines. Make sure it's a different formula than the one you used to derive the grand totals. So, if you just added the two departmental subtotals to get the grand totals the first time, make sure this new formula includes all the individual spending lines instead.
  • Extend the formula that you've just created by referencing and subtracting the grand totals right above. The result should be zero, and imbalances clearly visible. Use conditional formatting to highlight any value that's not equal to zero.
  • In the example below, you can see that a spending line in year two was missed in your original formula, causing the error.

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9. Include Charts to Visually Represent Trends

Charts allow stakeholders to quickly identify trends, patterns, and outliers in financial data over time. For example, a line chart showing revenue trends or fluctuations in expenses lets stakeholders assess the business’s financial performance.

How To Add Charts in Excel

Select the key metrics or trends that you want to visualize in the financial statements, such as revenue, expenses, profit margins or cash flow. 
Then choose the appropriate chart type that best represents the data. Here’s a visual to help you determine which type of chart may best meet your data representation needs. 

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Common types of charts used in financial statements include line charts, bar charts, pie charts, and scatter plots.

To insert a chart into your spreadsheet, click on the Insert tab on the Excel ribbon and navigate to the section that says "Charts."

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Click on your choice chart and it will be inserted in the same sheet. From the chart editor at the right side of the screen,  click on the “Data” tab to select the data range for the chart and the “Format” tab to customize the chart.

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Ensure that the chart is properly labeled with clear titles, axis labels, and data labels as needed. Format the chart elements, such as colors, fonts, and gridlines, to improve its readability and visual appeal.

10. Use the Fill Handle To Copy Formatting

The Fill Handle is located on the bottom right corner of a selected cell. When you hover your cursor over the dot, it will turn into a solid black cross.

You can use the Fill Handle to copy the formatting from one cell and apply it to other adjacent cells. The method for copying formats across rows is different than copying down columns.

How To Use Fill Handle

Let's say you're creating a monthly income statement with the months as your column headers and the various revenue/expense categories as your rows. 

In the first fillable cell, enter a value and format it with the comma style, no decimals (see tip 1). Cascade this format throughout the entire income statement.

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First, copy the format across the row with these steps:

  • Select the formatted cell.
  • Hover the cursor over the Fill Handle.
  • When you see the solid black cross, drag it across the row to the last cell that needs formatting.
  • The value and format from the first cell will be copied across, but you only want to copy the format.
  • Click on the Auto Fill Options icon next to the last copied cell to display a list of options (pictured below).
  • From this list, select Fill Formatting Only. The numbers will disappear from the copied cells, leaving only the original number. You have now finished formatting the first row.

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Next, copy the format from the first row to the columns, like this:

  • Highlight the first row with your cursor.
  • Hold the mouse over the Fill Handle and double click.
  • All the cells down to Net Income will fill sequentially with the same format as the first row (pictured below).
  • Click on the Auto Fill Options icon and select Fill Formatting Only. Once again, all the numbers below the first row will disappear, leaving only blank, pre-formatted cells.

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How To Format an Excel Spreadsheet to Look Professional

To make your financial reports clear and visually appealing, be sure to follow these best practices:

  • Maintain consistency in formatting throughout the spreadsheet, including font styles, font sizes, colors, and alignment. An effective way to do this is to program your brand colors into Excel (follow the steps in this article)
  • Follow Excel color coding best practices (mentioned in tip 2 above)
  • Use clear and descriptive titles and headings to label different sections of the spreadsheet. Make sure they stand out by using bold text or larger font sizes
  • Use borders, gridlines, or shading to visually separate different sections and make the data easier to navigate
  • Left-align text in headers and labels and right-align numbers for easy comparison
  • Incorporate charts and graphs to visually represent data and trends
  • Apply conditional formatting to highlight important data points, trends, or exceptions within the spreadsheet
  • Use data validation rules (dropdown lists or input restrictions) to prevent errors and improve data accuracy
  • Choose professional and easy-to-read fonts for the spreadsheet, such as Arial, Calibri, or Times New Roman, as they don’t distract from the data
  • Keep the design clean and minimalistic to maintain focus on the data
  • Double-check the spreadsheet for spelling errors, typos, and inaccuracies 

Get the Most Out of Excel

Follow the Excel sheet formatting tips in this guide to make your financial reports easy to read and navigate. 

However, even if you follow them to the letter, this doesn’t guarantee the accuracy of your data, which is a critical requirement for financial statements. 

If you want to go beyond formatting to get the most out of Excel for FP&A processes and ensure accurate year-, quarter-, or month-end close financial reports, use Vena. 

The platform offers the familiar Excel interface and adds enterprise-class features including workflow automation, version control and audit trails. 

Vena integrates seamlessly with all your existing source systems and pulls your financial data right into Excel, making it easy to automate traditionally manual processes like template formatting, budget to actuals variance analysis, and report generation. 

So, if you're looking to streamline FP&A processes at your organization, don't just "rip and replace" Excel with an unfamiliar tool that your team doesn't know how to use. Instead, get the best of both worlds with Vena: the flexibility, familiarity and power of Excel, with all the modern features of a cloud solution.

 

Looking to learn more about creating charts in Excel? Explore the free course series in Vena Academy.

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About the Author

Evan Webster, Senior Area Sales Manager, Vena

Evan Webster is an experienced sales professional and storyteller with a passion for innovative technology. He currently serves as a Senior Area Sales Manager at Vena and previously worked as a Content Specialist. He continually strives to inspire finance professionals to become strategic business partners and is dedicated to helping them automate and streamline their planning processes so they can make better decisions with reliable, data-driven insights—enabling meaningful growth for organizations across the globe.

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