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Excel Tips & Tricks

Excel Tips & Tricks #465 - Using #N/A in charts redux

Author: Bani Lamba

Published: 02 Feb 2023

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Hello all and welcome back to the Excel Tips & Tricks! This week we have a Creator level post in which we're taking a look at how to make use of the #N/A error to help customise charts.

This was previously covered in Tip #297.

What's the goal?

By default, Excel tries to plot everything in a given range when making a chart - which is obviously what we want as a default. But some types of data make this very awkward.

Let's take the below - a loan calculator with payments each quarter.

Screenshot of loan calculator table in Excel with payments each quarter

If we want to chart the loan balance over time, we get something like this:

Screenshot showing graph of loan balance calculated over time in Excel

This is accurate, but the 'wiggliness' is distracting - the pattern of payments is quarterly, which creates this. Ideally, we'd like to see the balance decreasing over time based only on the post-payment balances. If we make a secondary axis charting the payment amount as a fraction of the balance, it's even worse:

Screenshot showing Excel graph of loan balance calculated over time with a secondary axis

What we want to do is exclude the inter-payment amounts. And the easiest way to do that is to use a helper column that uses an IF to replace any non-payment month balances with an #N/A error - because these values aren't plotted on charts. We don't want "N/A" as text here - we want the error function, which is easy to generate directly with the function NA().

Here are our helper columns:

Screenshot of helper columns with #N/A added in Excel

And here is our resulting chart, with the data now being taken from the helper columns:

Screenshot of Excel showing correct graph of loan payments calculated over time

But wait, there's more

As well as skipping certain values, you can also use #N/A errors to filter which axis dates are plotted at all.

Let's say that we only want to chart the portion of the loan where the balance is between £125,000 and £25,000. We can create one final helper column that reproduces the axis labels only under this condition and returns #N/A otherwise. And just like that, the chart is dynamically filtered:

Screenshot of Excel showing helper columns with #N/A and filtered conditions

Knowing how to use #N/A to mark empty cells is particularly powerful when the charts need to be flexible for timing. More examples on this have been covered in Tip #171.

Overriding the default

We now know that if you create charts in Excel with a dataset with #N/A errors, Excel will ignore the errors and will connect all the datapoints by default. While the default may be what we want, it can also be handy to know how to override this setting.

You can do this by navigating to ‘Select Data’ in ‘Chart tools’ where you can select the ‘Hidden and Empty Cell Settings’ option to open up a menu as below. Here you can select the option to ‘Show #N/A as an empty cell’.

Screenshot of Hidden and Empty Cell Settings menu in Excel

With this setting any missing datapoints or errors will appear as gaps in the chart.

Screenshot showing chart with missing datapoints in Excel
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