Please Note: This article is written for users of the following Microsoft Excel versions: 2007, 2010, and 2013. If you are using an earlier version (Excel 2003 or earlier), this tip may not work for you. For a version of this tip written specifically for earlier versions of Excel, click here: Errors When Subtracting.

Errors When Subtracting

by Allen Wyatt
(last updated April 4, 2015)

1

Fred expressed some confusion and concern about the results he received when subtracting certain numbers. For instance, when he subtracts 3809717.98 from 3799904.94, he should get -9813.04, but instead gets -9813.04000000003.

What Fred is witnessing is an artifact of Excel's limitations. The problem is ultimately related to how Excel works with floating-point numbers. Computers must store numbers internally as binary values, not as the decimal values we see displayed on the screen. Whole numbers can be stored as binary values relatively easily. When you throw a decimal point into the mix, then storing very large or very small numbers becomes more problematic—Excel just isn't able to store them with absolute precision. Instead, Excel provides an "approximate" result, out to 15 digits (the limits of its precision). Thus, you end up with something like -9813.04000000003, which contain the full 15 digits of precision possible in Excel.

A full discussion of how floating-point numbers are maintained in Excel and computers in general can very quickly get extremely technical. For those who want more information on the topic, here are two places you can start your research:

http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=78113
http://download.oracle.com/docs/cd/E19957-01/806-3568/ncg_goldberg.html

The bottom line is that the only way to get the "exact" results you want, to the number of decimal places you want, is to use the ROUND function in your formulas, as shown here:

=ROUND(3799904.94 - 3809717.98, 2)

You can also, if desired, change the precision used to within all formulas by following these steps:

  1. Display the Excel Options dialog box. (In Excel 2007 click the Office button and then click Excel Options. In Excel 2010 display the File tab of the ribbon and then click Options.)
  2. At the left of the dialog box click Advanced.
  3. Scroll through the available options until you get to the section entitled "When Calculating this Workbook." (See Figure 1.)
  4. Figure 1. The advanced options in the Excel Options dialog box.

  5. Ensure that the Set Precision As Displayed check box is selected.
  6. Click OK.

Now, Excel uses the precision shown on the screen in all of its calculations, instead of doing calculations at the full 15-digit precision it normally maintains.

ExcelTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Excel training. This tip (6176) applies to Microsoft Excel 2007, 2010, and 2013. You can find a version of this tip for the older menu interface of Excel here: Errors When Subtracting.

Author Bio

Allen Wyatt

With more than 50 non-fiction books and numerous magazine articles to his credit, Allen Wyatt is an internationally recognized author. He  is president of Sharon Parq Associates, a computer and publishing services company. ...

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What is seven minus 6?

2015-09-11 14:11:10

Richard W

I have been using Excel for a couple of decades now and had never run into a problem with this until now. Thank you for providing the solution.


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