Basic math in Excel: Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division

By January 13, 2020 Tech Tip
Basic math in Excel: Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division

Are you new to Excel, and not sure where to start with formulas and operations? Many spreadsheets use basic math: adding and subtracting numbers or multiplying and dividing. Understanding these math formulas will help you graduate to more complex equations to manipulate your Excel data.

How does basic math work in Excel?

Excel uses formulas or functions to manipulate data. A function takes an input, which is the content of cells plus some operating symbols that say what to do with the data. You can input a single cell into a function or a range of multiple cells.

For addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, you can use the SUM function. Your input for the SUM formula is a basic mathematical expression. Here’s an example:


Translated into readable English, this function means: “Calculate the sum of the number in cell A1 minus the number in cell A2.”

Basic math does not actually require the SUM function to work. In some cases you can skip the “=SUM()” format, and simply type in the function input like “=A1+A2”. However, using the SUM function is sometimes necessary and a good practice if you’re new to formulas.

Adding Numbers

To add numbers with SUM, you use the plus (+) sign.


Basic math in Excel - Addition

Remember that you are not limited to just adding two numbers. You can add together many numbers and chain them together with plus signs, and you can add together an entire range of adjacent cells with a colon (:). For example:


Basic math in Excel - Adding ranges of numbers

This formula means “Calculate the sum of cells E1 through E4.”

Subtracting Numbers

Subtraction works the same as addition, except you use the minus (-) symbol.


Subtraction in Excel

And you can mix subtraction with addition like this:


Subtracting and adding numbers in Excel

Multiplying Numbers

To multiply, you use an asterisk (*) as the multiplication operator. In the example below, we’ve multiplied a total number of hours by an hourly rate to get a final total. Notice here that “Total hrs” in cell E5 is itself a sum of cells E1 through E4.


Multiplying numbers in Excel

Dividing Numbers

Once again, division works the same multiplication except you use a forward slash (/) as the division operator.


Basic math in Excel - Division

Here we’re dividing the total from cell E7 by two.

Bonus Tip: Complex Equations

If you want to chain together addition and subtraction with multiplication and division in a single equation, you’ll need to use parentheses to denote which operations are done first. Operations in parentheses are done first – and if you’re using multiple nested parentheses, the deepest parentheses are done first, and the calculation works its way “outwards”.

For example, say you want to multiply the sum of cells E1 through E4 by the sum of cells F1 through F3. You want the two sums you’re multiplying to be added up first, and then multiplied.


Here we’re using cell ranges (e.g. “E1:E4”) as a shorthand for addition. The SUM function will automatically add up this range of cells. Here’s an example using subtraction before multiplication:


So here we’re subtracting A2 from A3 then multiplying that result by the sum of cells F1 through F3.


Confused yet? The basic things to remember are that you’re performing operations on the contents of cells. You refer to cells and then use a mathematical operator (+, -, *, or /) to indicate what to do with the numbers in those cells. It’s good to use the SUM function, but you can skip it and type in math formulas on their own for the simplest cases.

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