Excel Tip: Converting numbers formatted as <1> to -1

By David H. Ringstrom, CPA

From time to time you may encounter financial data where negative numbers are enclosed in brackets, such as <100>. In most cases, Excel treats such numbers as text, which means such numbers won't be included in totals or other arithmetic functions.
Typically such numbers will be left-aligned, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Text-based numbers are typically left-aligned.
In this article I'll discuss two approaches you can use to convert such text-based inputs to negative numbers. I'll also share a formatting technique you can use if you want to enclose negative numbers in such brackets instead of parentheses.

The first approach for converting a number like <1> to -1 involves Excel's Find and Replace feature:
  1. Select the range of cells that contain numbers surrounded by < >. It doesn't matter if you select cells that have numbers without brackets, but it's helpful to limit the area that you're searching to avoid unintended replacements.
  2. In any version of Excel, press Ctrl-H to display the Find and Replace dialog box shown in Figure 1.
  3. As shown in Figure 2:
                    a.      Enter < in the Find What field
                    b.      Enter – in the Replace With field
                    c.      Click Replace All

Figure 2: Replace < characters with a minus sign.

      4.      Press Ctrl-H again, and as shown in Figure 3:
                    a.       Enter > in the Find What field
                    b.      Leave the Replace With field blank
                    c.       Click Replace All

Figure 3: Replace > characters with a blank field.
At this point all of the numbers surrounded by < > will be negative numbers and no longer treated as text.
Alternatively, you can tackle this problem formulaically. To do so, I'll use several different Excel functions:
  • IF – The IF function allows us to carry out a true/false test, return a result, or perform a calculation based on the result of the test. IF has three arguments: logical_test, value_if_true, and value_if_false.
  • ISNUMBER – The ISNUMBER function allows us to test whether a cell contains a number. This function has a single value argument, and returns TRUE if a cell contains a number or FALSE if it contains text or is blank.
  • VALUE – The VALUE function converts a number stored as text into a value, and has a single text argument.
  • MID – The MID function allows us to extract text from the middle of a string, which is another way to refer to text within a cell. This function has three arguments: text, start_num, and num_chars.
  • LEN – The LEN function returns the length of text within a cell, and has a single text argument.
Now let's put these functions together into a single formula.
1.      As shown in Figure 1, enter these inputs into a blank worksheet:
                    A1: <1>
                    A2: 20
                    A3: <30>
                    A4: 400
                    A5: <5,000>
2.      Enter this formula in Cell B2, as shown in Figure 4:
Figure 4: You can use a formula to convert text-based numbers to values.
As discussed above, IF has three arguments:
  • logical_test: the ISNUMBER function determines if the data in Cell A1 is a number or not.
  • value_if_true: If ISNUMBER returns true, then Cell A1 contains a number, so I'll simply return that value.
  • value_if_false: If ISNUMBER returns false, I know that I have a number surrounded by < > that I wish to remove. In this case I'll use the VALUE and MID functions together.
As shown above, MID has three arguments:
  • text – In this case, I refer to Cell A1 for the text I wish to shorten
  • start_num – I know that I want to eliminate the starting < character, so I instruct MID to start at the second position
  • num_char – I also want to eliminate the trailing >, so I'll use the LEN function to determine how long the text in Cell A1 is, and then subtract 2 from that number. Thus LEN(A1)-2 would return 1 for Cell A1. LEN(A3)-2 returns 2, and LEN(A5,2) returns 5 (the comma counts as a character).
The MID function returns a text-based number, which I convert using the VALUE function. I added a minus sign before VALUE to return a negative number.

Finally, I promised to share a technique that you can use if you want to use < > instead of parentheses to format a spreadsheet:
  • In any version of Excel, press Ctrl-F1 to display the Format Cells dialog box.
  • Choose Custom from the Number tab.
  • Erase the Type field, and enter this format code, as shown in Figure 4:
Alternatively, use this code if you want to format the numbers with dollar signs:
Or, insert [Red] if you with to make negative numbers red:

A previous version of this article first appeared on www.accountingweb.com .

About the author:

David H. Ringstrom, CPA heads up Accounting Advisors, Inc., an Atlanta-based software and database consulting firm providing training and consulting services nationwide. Contact David at david@acctadv.com  or follow him on Twitter. David speaks at conferences about Microsoft Excel, and presents webcasts for several CPE providers, including AccountingWEB partner CPE Link