How to Learn Excel for Accounting & Go From Excel Beginner to Excel Pro

Like many CPAs, I use Excel at work excessively. I also use it (or Google Sheets) whenever I can for everything and anything in my personal life. Information about my own finances including budgets, net worth and investments all sit on a spreadsheet. I also plan my travel and content with it. I can hardly recall running my life without Excel even though it was likely before I entered the world of Finance. Back then, I knew what Excel was and was confident that I can do some math on it. However, I simply didn’t need to use it for hours every day until I started my first accounting job.

Note, it is not my intention to generalize the entire profession and say every CPA uses Excel. I don’t know all of them so it is not a claim I can make. However, almost all the CPAs and accountants I know use Excel to some degree. In fact, some people I know that work outside of Finance use Excel regularly as well.

Excel is undoubtedly a powerful tool. The more you learn about it, the more you will be pleasantly surprised by what it is capable of. I am writing this post because I get questions everytime I share an Excel tip or lesson on my Instagram story. A lot of us understand how important Excel is to an accountant and want to know how to learn Excel or get better at it.

I know for a fact there is so much more I need to learn about Excel. However, I want to share with you the lessons I picked up from being an Excel beginnger (e.g., intimidated by nested formula) to someone who my colleagues would refer to as “someone really good at Excel.”

You Need to First Believe You Can Become an Excel Guru

I recently started reading David Robson’s book called The Expectation Effect. It talks about the science behind the theory on how your mindset can change your life. Obviously, a lot more than mindset change goes into changing your life. However, the author argues that there is scientific evidence supporting the notion that what you expect have an impact on the eventual outcome. If you follow this logic, then believing in your own ability to one day become an Excel guru is an important first step to actually becoming one.

When I was at my first accounting job as an entry-level accountant, I was assigned this time-consuming task. I did not receive a lot of guidance from my then-manager but I was beyond excited because it was unlike the transactional tasks I was mostly doing at the time. It felt like a chance to do something more exciting than simply posting payments (which I still do to this day, to a much lesser degree). I don’t recall the exact details of the task now but I remember this detail very clearly: I would spend an entire morning on Excel every week but still unsure of the accuracy because the process was so manual. I could not afford to finish and double check my work because time was limited. Back then, I did not have the Excel skills or experience required to automate the data-entry process. As a result, instead of spending my time and effort on review, I ended up spending the majority of the time I had entering data instead. If I recall correctly, I was so new in Excel that vlookup was a stranger to me. I don’t remember what happened to the task or if I was told why when it was taken away. If I have to guess, my manager probably found a better way to do it and freed me from being confused for hours every week.

At my next job, I got to work with people who I saw as Excel experts. On top of that, they were supportive and willing to teach. However, for a short while, my own insecurity stopped me from realizing that it was possible for me to be that good as well. I looked at them and did not think, “I admired them because they are so good. I can’t wait to be that good with practice.” Instead, I just thought, “I admired them because they are so good.” At first glance, this might not seem like a huge problem. But if I did not believe I was capable of becoming someone I once admired, I would not have the motivation required to become one.

The purpose of sharing my own experience with you is to show you how far I have come. If you had told the version of me that struggled with Excel what I can do now (just this week I learned how to use VBA to send an email with the workbook as an attachment to multiple people with the click of a button), I would probably be impressed but also skpetical. As I just shared, I did not always have a clear idea of what I am capable of because building confidence takes time. Now, I know I am on the right track to becoming an Excel expert because I apply what I am about the share daily.

So, here is what this post is for. If you want to become proficient in Excel and be labeled as an Excel guru, you first need to convince yourself you have what it takes. Aside from that, you just have to put in the work.

There Is Almost Always Room for Improvement

For people working in Finance, accuracy is often one of the most important factors to consider. However, with deadlines associated with accounting close, how can we achieve both efficiency and accuracy? If you have read my post on overtime in accounting, you would know that I actively avoid working overtime unless absolutely necessary. I do it for both my physical and mental health as I believe showing up to do my best requires my health to be in great shape. This means constantly asking myself, “can I make improvements on this working paper?

There are several areas you can improve a working paper on:

  • ACCURACY – by automating data-entry process, including checks for variance, incorporating formula-driven calculations etc
  • EFFICIENCY – by automating manual processes, removing redundancies etc
  • PRESENTATION – by considering the users and designing visual elements that fit their needs

One of the major projects I worked on after I took on the Revenue Accountant role last year was to overhaul our commissions calculation process. We had been using a web-based software for a couple of years at that point and continued to experience issues with it. Not only was the software expensive, iy simply not a good fit for our business needs. It would take hours just to resolve a minor calculation issue, After considering our alternatives, we made the decision to move the calculation process back to Excel. There were several main factors to consider including our users and accuracy. I was in charge of building the calculation workbook from scratch which should achieve the following:

  • less time-consuming than the web-based software by leveraging Salesforce reports as much as possible
  • improved user-friendliness by eliminating unnecessary data (e.g., deals fully paid from 3 years ago)
  • minimal interruption to the users during the transition period
  • enhanced review process by providing an audit trail for any override of raw data

The lesson from this was the fact the even though the web-based software worked, it did not mean we should continue to accept it as it was and not question if a better alternative existed. By building the workbook from scratch, I improved the accuracy and efficiency by leveraging Salesforce reports to streamline the data-entry process. The time saved from this provided an opportunity for me to perform value-added review of the results instead. I also improved the presentation by eliminating the unnecessary data from the commissions reports.

Obviously, we don’t always have the capacity or opportunity to take on such a large project (it took my manager and I months to finish the first working version). However, it does not mean all improvements have to be drastic. Sometimes, all it takes to save 5 minutes a day can be something as minor as removing a redundant pivot table (to avoid updating and reviewing it if the user no longer needs it).

When I was working on the commissions project, I had one of my biggest Excel breakthroughs as I pushed my limits multiple times. Need a list of unique deals for a specific sales rep? I learned to combined the FILTER and UNIQUE formula. Need to send an email with the active worksheet as a PDF with the touch of a button? I used VBA for the very first time. The key is to always question whether an improvement can be made and challenge yourself to make it happen.

Learning Begins With A Desire to Use Excel to Make Your Life Better

Of course, I am not going to tell you I am not motivated by external rewards. An upcoming promotion or a raise motivates me to excel in my job. I genuinely wanted to be a part of the commissions project but it was also part of my job description. However, that does not mean I was not motivated internally. I wanted to learn as much as I can about Excel because the skill was mine to keep. Even if I am not with the employer in a year’s or two year’s time, what I learned from that experience will stay with me. When I am ready for my next challenge (start a new job or create an Excel course), my knowledge will help me land that job or inspire the content I want to create. When you are motivated from within, you will do your best work because you won’t feel like you are being forced to in exchange for a paycheck. After all, there is a lot else you can do for money.

So, in order to go from an Excel beginner to an Excel guru, you need to identify why becoming an Excel guru would make your life better.

  • Do you believe it will help with you career progression because proficient Excel skills seem to be highly sought after by your potential employers?
  • Do you want to hone your logical skills? The most impressie Excel formula are not necessarily the longest and complex – the most impressive ones are clear, to the point and achieve the results you are looking for. To do that, you need to be able to think logically.
  • Or, you might be motivated to be as efficient as you can in your job by automating manual processes so you can get more done in less time. This does not have to mean you welcome more work on your plate simply because you have more capacity.

Whatever your reasons to becoming an Excel expert might be, they will help motivate you to keep pushing your boundaries and challenging yourself. We learn and grow when we are faced with a question we need and want to solve.

Submerge Yourself In Excel Content

I have to admit I probably spend too much time on different social channels including Reddit. However, one thing that helps with the guilt is following the r/excel subreddit. If you are already familiar with how Reddit works, you would know that it is sort of a message board/discussion forum. In the Excel subreddit, people of all levels ask Excel questions, share Excel content and tips. I have not asked a question on Reddit so far. However, more than once, I got answers to questions I did not even know I had. For example, I learned that you can lock the Format Painter by double-clicking it instead of clicking it multiple times if you want to paste the format in more than one place. Alternatively, you can use the Paste Special function to copy and paste format.

The key is to submerge yourself in Excel content wherever possible while making sure it’s still entertaining to you. You want to enjoy the content and not be bothered by it when you are supposed to be relaxing by scrolling on your phone. There are different channels where you can receive the information from – Reddit, Instagram, YouTube, Microsoft’s official Excel blog etc. The key is to find what works for you and helps you learn. If you want to become an Excel rockstar, ideally you will strive to interact with it as much as you can. Don’t make the mistake by associating Excel with your current job only. Think bigger picture and further into the future. Remember how being good at Excel is supposed to help get you where you want to be.

Immediate First Steps to Getting Better at Excel

By now, you are probably wondering what are your next steps after reading this post. This makes sense because one question I get often is what Excel resources or courses I recommend. I chose not to jump straight into this question because I think it is important to set up your mind first. Once you believe you can and understand why you want to become an Excel guru, you are ready to dedicate your time and effort to achieve your goal.

  1. Remember, the first thing you do is to instill belief in yourself and identify why you want to get better at Excel
    • you can write it down somewhere or share it with someone you trust. the key is to make a commitment to yourself because it will help guide you on your journey
  2. At work, set aside some time and start reviewing your working papers one-by-one
    • ask yourself how you can improve them in 1 or all of the 3 aspects: accuracy, efficiency and presentation
    • if you have a supportive manager, it might be worthwhile to share your ideas with him/her before starting the work to ensure you are on the right track
  3. Once you have an idea on what you want to do (e.g., revamp the bank reconciliation working paper), get working!
    • this is the moment you realize what you know and what you don’t (yet)
    • for example, when I decided to create a macro to format certain columns over multiple sheets automatically, I had to look into how to create a macro
    • this is an important step as most of your learning happens here
  4. At some point on your journey, you will need ideas on what else you can do with Excel
    • this is a good time for you to explore some structured Excel courses or tutorials
    • LinkedIn Learning (free with a library card), Udemy (frequent promos) and YouTube (free) are all really good options

Even though I presented these steps in order, know that you are likely going to rinse and repeat the steps multiple time on your journey. For example, you might have a really tough time with a project and begin to question your ability to become an Excel guru. That is when you go back to Step #1. As you move up in your career, you might pass off some old tasks and be responsible for new ones. Get into the habit of repeating Step #2 every once in a while.

Good luck 📊