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Discovering the Hidden Power of Google Sheets

I’ve never been a big spreadsheet guy. As a writer, my life has been spent in word processors and text editors. Sure, I know how to use spreadsheets, and I’m a great believer in setting up a simple spreadsheet for calculations that might need to be tweaked or updated. Until recently, I could go months without opening a spreadsheet. Part of my disregard has been due to people in my life using spreadsheets as layout programs because they lacked the tools or skill to produce the same document in a page layout app. That’s seductive—you can put text anywhere on the “page” by filling in the right cells—but for anything except one-offs, hammering a nail into the page layout wall with Excel as your screwdriver will eventually result in tears.

In the last year or two, though, I’ve changed my spots. It turns out that I just needed the right project to unleash my inner spreadsheet maven. I hope the highly specific story of my evolution from a guy who seldom strayed beyond SUM and AVERAGE to someone who has discovered the wonders of multi-sheet lookups will give you ideas about how you too can make better use of the astonishing tool that the modern spreadsheet has become.

Speaking of tools, although I suspect that what I’ve done is possible in Apple’s Numbers and Microsoft Excel, I chose to work in Google Sheets. Not because it’s necessarily the most powerful of spreadsheets—I have no idea how it stacks up—but because having my spreadsheets always accessible to multiple people with minimal fuss is the killer feature. It’s the same reason I do most of my writing in Google Docs these days. It’s also helpful to be able to pull up any of my online documents on any of my other devices.

Architecting the Budget Tool

In 2020, I became president of the Finger Lakes Runners Club (FLRC), only to have the pandemic force us to cancel all our races after February, which thoroughly confused the club’s financial workings. At the end of 2020, our then-treasurer had to create a 2021 budget based on pure guesswork and update it throughout the year, as some races came back and others didn’t. That treasurer stepped down during the year, and I convinced my friend Charlie to take the role. Our first task was to build a budget for 2022. Research revealed that the previous treasurer’s approach had been a simple spreadsheet that did little more than add manually entered numbers. I hate retyping numbers—that’s what computers are for!—so I started to brainstorm better approaches.

My first question revolved around the purpose of the budget. FLRC puts on about 20 races per year, and we expect most of them to make a small profit or at least break even, with two large races providing the bulk of the club’s income for operations, philanthropy, and savings. I realized we didn’t care exactly how much race directors spent as long as they stayed within ranges that would lead to a workable outcome for the club as a whole. Problems had occasionally cropped up in the past when a race director came up with an ill-considered plan that resulted in considerable losses. I wanted our budget to provide guardrails that race directors could stay between when contemplating an unusual expense.

My initial thinking was that QuickBooks Online, which is what the club uses for accounting, might provide budgeting capabilities. It does, but it was a non-starter for two reasons. First, its interface doesn’t provide significant historical information we could use to inform our budget estimates for the next year. Second, although we could export the budget in various ways, we would have to do that regularly so race directors could check how their race was doing as we recorded income and expenses. That’s when I focused on Google Sheets—I wanted any race director to be able to see the budget for their race and its up-to-date numbers with a click of a link.

The key report to see a race’s current numbers is the statement of activity in QuickBooks Online. Each race is a class that turns into a column when exported, and each row is an account (registrations, awards, timing, etc.) from our chart of accounts. It’s nice, tabular data, but it’s difficult to read in any format because the number of races and accounts force scrolling vertically and horizontally. Also, I wanted each race to appear in isolation—asking race directors to parse their race data from a massive PDF or spreadsheet wouldn’t fly.

Example of a statement of activity

That’s when I had my next epiphany. I may not be a spreadsheet guy or a programmer, but I understand abstraction. When programming, you use variables to avoid hard-coding data—myVariable changes based on whatever you put into it. In spreadsheets, you use cell references to operate on whatever the contents of cell C32 or column M happen to be. Even better, a single spreadsheet can have multiple internal sheets, and you can reference cell ranges in one sheet from another.

Suddenly, I could visualize the architecture of the spreadsheet I needed to build. I would have a statement of activity in one sheet—exported directly from QuickBooks Online—and then I’d have a separate sheet for each race that would extract its data from the statement of activity. Even better, I’d import a statement of activity for every year back to 2016 so each race could display columns of historical data for those years as well. That historical data would inform the actual budgeting process, enabling Charlie and me to look at previous years (and an overall average) as we attempted to predict the next year’s revenues and expenses.

Example of a budget sheet

Building the Magic Formula

The tricky part was implementing my vision. I knew it was possible to look up data from one sheet and display it in another, but I didn’t know how. I quickly came up with a hard-coded proof-of-concept, which was good, because it took me a lot longer to figure out how to abstract it. Eventually, with many Web searches and poring over examples, plus trips to Help > Function List to see what Google Sheets is capable of, I ended up with this formula.

=IFERROR(HLOOKUP($A$2,INDIRECT("'"&E$4&" Overall'!$A$5:$X$250"), Utility!$A5, FALSE))

Explaining it will take some time, but it’s where the magic happens:

  • IFERROR: Wrapping the entire formula in an IFERROR function like this shows a blank instead of an error like #N/A when the rest of the formula fails, usually because there’s no data in one of the long-ago years.
  • HLOOKUP: The HLOOKUP function does the bulk of the work, searching across a range for a key and returning the value of the cell in the column that it finds. Configuring it properly took the most time.
  • $A$2: The first task was to specify the search key for HLOOKUP. Since my goal was to look up the information for a particular race, I initially hard-coded the race name in this spot so HLOOKUP could find it in the annual statements of activity. That worked but would have forced me to customize the formula on each race sheet. Doable, but fussy and brittle. Instead, I created a variable of sorts by putting the race name in cell A2 and using the absolute reference $A$2 to look it up. ($ characters ensure that the specified column and row don’t change when the formula is copied into other cells.) When I wanted to create a new sheet for a race, all I had to do was put the new race name in that cell to enable the formula to look up the correct data.
  • INDIRECT: The next information that HLOOKUP needed was the range to search. I could hard-code something like 2023 Overall!A5:X250 to reference the necessary data in this year’s statement of activity, but abstracting that to any given year was tough. (I had to start at A5 rather than A1 because the first four rows come in as merged cells from the QuickBooks Online export, and starting at A1 fails.) The INDIRECT function turned out to be the key because it returns a cell reference specified by a string. Building its string took me a long time due to the exactitude required.
  • "'"&E$4&" Overall'!$A$5:$X$250": Each historical column needed to look up data from the associated year’s sheet, but I wanted to avoid hard-coding the years. My solution was to use '"&E$4&" Overall' to pull the year from cell E4 and mash it onto the word Overall to specify the title of the correct sheet. Because E was relative (not prefixed with $), copying the formula to other columns continued to look up the year from row 4 (absolute, because it was prefixed with $). Specifying the absolute range of !$A$5:$X$250 was easy. The hardest part was figuring out the combination of double and single hash marks and putting the & (string concatenation operator) in the right place. It probably took me an hour of trial and error; I understand why it works now, but I didn’t until it worked. I’m a shameless stealer of examples, and one of them must have convinced me it was the right approach.
  • Utility!$A5: What’s this Utility sheet? It contains a single column of numbers, with 1 in A1, 2 in A2, and so on, down to 250 in A250. It exists because I needed some way to give HLOOKUP the index, the row number of the value to be returned, and I couldn’t figure out any other way to increment a number without referring to the contents of a cell. Confusingly, the index has to start from row 5 because my range to search is A5:X250. So the index for row 5 needs to be 1, 6 has to be 2, and so on. This was mind-bending, and, honestly, I only figured it out through trial and error by slotting in specific index numbers until the correct results came back. The $ before the A ensures that it’s absolute to stay focused on that column, whereas the lack of the dollar sign before 5 makes it relative so it can increment as need be.
  • FALSE: Finally, the FALSE option for HLOOKUP specifies that the row to be searched isn’t sorted. I’m unsure what that would entail, but since my data isn’t sorted, I just went with it.

The beauty of this formula is that it pulls in all the data I need in one fell swoop. I first create a sheet with the race name in A2 and columns for 2016 through 2023. Then I put the formula in the first cell under 2023, copy it to the right to fill the first row for each year, and finally copy it down to fill the rest of the rows.

(For those who don’t do much with spreadsheets, there’s always a trick for copying a formula—in Google Sheets and Excel, you drag the handle in the lower-right corner of the cell; in Numbers, you drag a yellow handle on the desired side of the cell. That copies the formula to the destination cells, appropriately incrementing relative row and column references. If you want to put a formula from one cell into another without incrementing cell references, you must either prefix both the row and column references with $ or copy and paste the text of the formula rather than the cell that contains it.)

Filtering and Formatting the Data

If you looked closely at the statement of activity screenshot earlier in the article, you might have noticed that many of the accounts are suffixed with (deleted) or even (deleting)(deleted). Those are an artifact of a quirk of QuickBooks Online that required a lot of fuss. Here’s why.

Our chart of accounts hasn’t remained static over time, with various treasurers and bookkeepers adding and removing accounts, some of which haven’t been used since 2016, the first year I pull in for the Budget Tool. But if you think about my magic formula, it works by looking up cell references. I need the Food account to be in row 87 in the Overall sheets for each year. A standard QuickBooks Online statement of activity shows only rows with activity, but if I create such a report, there’s no predicting which row Food will end up in for any given year.

Luckily, there is an option in QuickBooks Online to show all accounts in reports, and when I use that, the statement of activity report puts each category in the same row every time. That’s possible because QuickBooks Online never deletes any account; it only marks it as deleted and hides it from view.

However, having all these unnecessary rows littering up my raw data presents other problems. Most of our races have activity in 10–20 accounts at most, but the statements of activity have a whopping 204 rows. That’s a serious presentation problem.

Why so many accounts? Earlier this year, we realized we could save over $800 per year by switching from a regular QuickBooks Online account to one through TechSoup, which provides discounted technology for nonprofits. I vaguely knew about TechSoup because Jeff Porten wrote about it for TidBITS years ago (see “TechSoup: Get Deep Discounts on Technology for Your Nonprofit,” 18 October 2018), but I didn’t realize it had a $75-per-year QuickBooks Online subscription on offer. Converting our existing QuickBooks Online subscription to the TechSoup account required setting up a new “company,” transferring our data, and then canceling the previous subscription. It was complicated, stressful, and required help from Intuit support to get the promised refunds, but it worked in the end.

Unfortunately, setting up a new QuickBooks Online company gives you a boilerplate chart of accounts even when you’re immediately importing data from a backup. All those boilerplate accounts were then marked as deleted, radically increasing the number of deleted accounts cluttering my statement of activity reports. I wanted those accounts to disappear entirely since they never had any activity at all, but the closest I could get to removing them for good was merging them. In theory, I could have merged all of them into a single account that would be marked as deleted. In reality, it was a clumsy, error-prone process that worked only sporadically, so I gave up and decided to suffer with ugly statements of activity.

In an earlier iteration of the Budget Tool, I had manually gone through each race and hidden the rows that didn’t contain relevant data, but that was tedious and caused confusion once when a race generated activity in a previously unused account that I’d hidden. When I was refactoring the Budget Tool to handle all those extra deleted rows from the QuickBooks Online boilerplate chart of accounts, I thought of a better approach.

Google Sheets has filtering capabilities that can hide or show rows. So I created a Total column that added up the numbers from each of the years from 2016 through 2023. I don’t care about the total itself, but then I created a filter (choose Data > Create Filter) on that column that showed only those rows that weren’t zero. Poof! All the unnecessary data immediately disappeared.

Filter interface in Google Sheets

I did end up with one wart. My sheets all have header rows for Revenues and Expenditures. The Revenues header appears above all the data and is thus safe from the filter, but since Expenditures is in the middle of the sheet and has no associated data, the filter hides it. To keep it around, I put a 1 in one of its columns to keep it visible. Perhaps there’s a better solution.

You’ll also notice that, along with the blue Revenues and Expenditures header rows, I have gray Total Revenues and Total Expenditures rows, and a black Net Revenue row. For ease of reading the sheet, I want those formatted differently. Initially, I had formatted those manually for each sheet, which is fussy but not as complicated as it might seem, given that Google Sheets has an Edit > Paste Special > Format Only command. I could copy any cell that was formatted the way I wanted and then go through selecting entire rows and pressing Command-Option-V to paste just the formatting of my copied cell.

Nevertheless, in my quest for abstraction, I realized there was a better way. Google Sheets also has a conditional formatting capability, which lets you format a range of cells based on a formula. I’ve long used it to make negative numbers red, but I realized I could also make rules to format my special rows. One tip: choosing Format > Conditional Formatting displays only the rules that apply to the currently selected cells. So if you choose that command and nothing appears, select a cell that should be in the affected range.

Conditional formatting interface in Google Sheets

The trick in getting this to work was in the formula: =REGEXMATCH($A2:$A210,"Net Revenue"). REGEXMATCH is a regular expression (grep) function that looks for text within a range. As with so many other parts of this project, it took some experimentation to get it working. I’m not sure why some of the rules ended up with odd ranges—I changed the one shown to the simpler A4:N211 with no problem.

Once I had done this, I created several additional columns that Charlie and I could use for budget calculations—the ones in orange in the screenshot. They employ simple calculations to sum the revenues and expenditures and then calculate the net revenue. The notes column helps us remember why we estimated a particular number. Occasionally, I’ve also made a scratchpad column to preview what different estimates might do to a race’s bottom line—it’s just another orange column with the same calculations as the budgets.

I’ve been trying to abstract things like hidden rows and formatting because we have 22 sheets between all the races, General, and Total. If I decide to make a change, I must make it 22 times, which is tedious. In my last major revision, when I abstracted the hidden rows and formatting, I also had to recreate each sheet. That was easy enough; I duplicated one, changed the display name and race name in A2, and refreshed the filter. But having done that, I’m back to needing to make any further changes 22 times. For instance, I’ll need to add a 2024 column for each sheet next year. In an ideal world, abstraction capabilities would be easily applied to multiple sheets within a spreadsheet. Perhaps that’s possible, and I just haven’t discovered it yet!

Regular Usage

I want to leave you with a few notes about how we use our Budget Tool regularly.

First, after our bookkeeper has entered everything for a month into QuickBooks Online, we run a statement of activity report that includes all rows and export it to Excel format. Although it’s possible to import that into Google Sheets, overwriting the contents of a particular sheet, I find it easier to open the export in Excel, copy the data, switch to Google Sheets, and paste it over the associated year’s sheet.

(Is there an online integration that would move the data between QuickBooks Online and Google Sheets automatically? The closest I’ve found is Skyvia, but Intuit doesn’t provide the necessary API access to reports.)

As soon as Google Sheets has the new data, everything—and I mean everything—instantly updates, so we can spin through the sheets and see how each race is doing. If some numbers differ wildly from our budget estimates, we try to figure out why. (It’s usually just a categorization error.)

The only hitch we’ve encountered is a race getting data in a previously unused account; I have to refresh the filter by selecting all and then deselecting zero again. That’s happened only once so far.

When it comes to sharing the data with our race directors, there’s one final Google Sheets trick I wanted to share. If you click the blue Share button in the upper-right corner of Google Sheets, the link provided goes to the first sheet, Total in our case. That’s not bad, but linking directly to a race sheet would be better. To do that, I Control-click cell A1 for a particular sheet and choose View More Cell Actions > Get Link To This Cell at the bottom. That copies an appropriate custom link to the clipboard for sharing elsewhere.

You might wonder if I’m worried someone will inadvertently or maliciously delete or edit my carefully constructed sheets and formulas. My experience is that most people are sufficiently intimidated by collaborative documents that they won’t touch anything, but there are three ways of protecting shared spreadsheets like this:

  • Share access: I chose to use the blunt force approach and limit the access for everyone but me and Charlie to Commenter. If people want to make changes, they can, but I get to approve or reject them. That hasn’t come up yet.
  • Protect sheets and ranges: For significantly more granular control, the Data > Protect Sheets and Ranges options let you specify exactly who can do what with specific portions of the spreadsheet. I haven’t needed such fine-grained control yet.
  • Previous versions: Google Sheets maintains a complete version history of all changes, making it easy to revert the entire spreadsheet to a previous version if necessary. Even if someone did make undesirable changes, it’s simple to recover. The only problem is if you don’t notice immediately and many legitimate changes are made afterward.

I realize everything in this story is highly specific to my project, but I hope you take away the idea that modern spreadsheets can do much more than just perform calculations—and perhaps some ideas for how to use similar techniques in your own work. Spreadsheets aren’t far off from full-fledged programming environments, and in fact, they often support macros or scripts that can go beyond what’s possible within the confines of rows and columns. But that’s another journey for another day.

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Comments About Discovering the Hidden Power of Google Sheets

Notable Replies

  1. This is at most an indirect comment on the article.

    I’m baffled by the lack of adoption of what Excel calls R1C1 notation. $A$2 would be represented as R2C1, where the numbers without brackets indicate an absolute reference (as the dollar signs do in A1 reference). But the beauty of R1C1 is in relative references. Rather than getting something like M42, where I struggle to figure out how far away that cell is from the cell with the formula, R1C1 would present something like R[-14]C[26], making it immediately obvious that the referenced cell is fourteen rows above and twenty-six rows to the left. For me, this is especially important when I want to make sure I have the same formula in several cells in a column or a row. I can arrow down (or across) and the formula stays the same, where in A1 notation the formula would change appearance in each cell. (Or at least that’s my recollection. I started using R1C1 when doing engineering analyses in Excel, and now the habit is ingrained.)

  2. Huh! I’ve never used R1C1 notation, which from your description sounds better if you think positionally. Numbers likes to name cells instead, which makes for easier reading but somewhat throws me when I’m trying to type formulas.

  3. Adam, ChatGPT is excellent at REGEXMATCH! (You never responded to my story about learning to use ChatGPT to write Python… where I used it for REGEX. :-( )

  4. Disclosure: I used to work for Smartsheet and still maintain a position in SMAR.

    Just posting to say there is a lot going on behind the scenes of a modern spreadsheet interface. In Smartsheet, the interface attempts to reveal the ways in which you can share/limit data with others so the automations can inform people when updates (to the data) occur. You can also build dashboards to abstract the spreadsheet or reveal only the relevant parts of it on the dashboard.

    Just suggesting that the spreadsheet has come a long long way, while also maintaining all the lovely formula magic that made them what they are.

    Don’t like Smartsheet? Asana, AirTable, Monday, etc. are all about the same but emphasizing slightly different UI elements. The spreadsheet grid is still the foundation that underlies all of them. Only the relative newcomer ClickUp has the most adaptable UI for making workflows more visually distinct.

    p.s., Paid vs. free: I am not speaking to value since software and Internet anything require humans to maintain. You will/are pay/paying, full stop.

  5. I’ll have to give ChatGPT a try next time I fuss with REGEXMATCH. All this work was taking place before ChatGPT was released.

  6. i was surprised not to see the word “privacy” anywhere in the article, but I guess if you’re willing to put your docs on Google’s cloud, being the product is not a consideration for you. Probably saves a lot of worry — in the short run.

  7. Wow, the formatting of the exported QuickBooks statement makes it very difficult to work with. (I assume that the following screenshot from the article is the exported statement?)

    It will be ideal if the data can be exported in “tidy data” format, i.e.

    1. Every column is a variable/an attribute
    2. Every row is an observation
    3. Every cell is a single value

    This reduced form is essentially the original expense entries instead of the summary, which can be formatted as:

    | Expense description | Expense category | Race event | Date | Amount |

    If such a report can be exported from QuickBooks, then a summary table can be created using tools such as Pivot Table or sumifs(). Year filters can be added so new yearly statements can be created easily. If an event filter is added, then each race director can also access statement of accounts for their races. The archiving of the expense entries is another benefit, too.

  8. For instance, I’ll need to add a 2024 column for each sheet next year. In an ideal world, abstraction capabilities would be easily applied to multiple sheets within a spreadsheet.

    In Excel, you could select the affected worksheets, from the worksheet tabs along the bottom, then on one of them, insert a column and add the 2024 header in that column. It will be repeated in all the selected worksheets. Make sure you select the correct worksheets !
    Looks like Google Sheets would have a similar function.

  9. Have you tried opening your spreadsheet in Numbers?
    Pivot tables may help to simplify your design, Apple implemented them better than others.

  10. Another method would be to add some extra columns to your Utility sheet that contain the years of interest, and then have each race’s sheet reference those Utility cells instead of having hard-coded years. That seems the most programmatic and doesn’t require inserting new columns for each race’s budget. You can also start removing past years (if you want to limit your loopback period) by modifying the Utility cells.

    Just be careful to only modify the Utility cell contents. If you insert or delete columns in that range, you probably won’t get what you want. For example, a reference to cell D4 (or even $D$4) will change to E4 (or $E$4) if you insert a column anywhere before column D.

    The only hitch we’ve encountered is a race getting data in a previously unused account; I have to refresh the filter by selecting all and then deselecting zero again. That’s happened only once so far.

    I think you could resolve that by using “Filter by condition” and selecting “Is not equal to”, “0”.


  11. Yeah, I didn’t want to get into this because I have no choice in its usage, but QuickBooks Online makes me crazy. Ugly, awkward, and hard to navigate for everything.

    Ooo, that would be helpful, but sadly, unless I’m missing something, you can make changes in only a single sheet at a time. I can select multiple sheets in Google Sheets, but as soon as I click to make a change, the others deselect.

    No, because I’ve standardized everything the club does on Google Docs and Sheets to be accessible to the most people on whatever platform they use.

    Huh. That’s an interesting concept! I have to ponder how best to do this, but now that you’ve triggered the neurons, I’m seeing some avenues… Thanks!

    That’s a better way to filter, thanks! But even it requires manually refreshing the filter—it doesn’t pick up when data changes under it.

  12. (Is there an online integration that would move the data between QuickBooks Online and Google Sheets automatically?

    I’ve not used it for a couple of years, but I see that IFTTT features both Google Sheets and Quickbooks Online. (I used to use IFTTT to log front-door security camera events to a Google Sheet and while I never need to go in and query/analyse the data, it basically seemed to work fine in that context.)

    Perhaps, rather than doing your monthly batches, you would be open to acquiring the data in real time? If not directly to the main Sheet, then perhaps to an interim, buffer sheet?

    Zapier, which you also mentioned here, lists both Sheets and Quickbooks too, though I have no experience with this service whatsoever.

  13. Alas, no—I had looked into those. I just re-checked IFTTT, and it doesn’t have anything related to reports. Nor does Zapier from my recollection.

    I find Zapier and IFTTT interesting, but I’ve never found either to be useful for anything I actually need.

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