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How to Calculate a Running Total in Excel

Business News Daily Editor
Business News Daily Editor

Learn to create cumulative sums in Microsoft Excel with these step-by-step instructions and screenshots.

  • Also known as a cumulative sum, a running total is a commonly used function within the educational and business world.
  • The process of creating a running total in Excel involves three fairly simple steps.
  • Running totals are used in retail stores, for sales and at sporting events, among other applications.

Creating a running total (or cumulative sum, as it is known in Excel) is easy once you get the hang of it. Lots of business owners use cumulative sums to keep track of expenses and revenue, employee hours and inventory

The idea behind a running total is to take a column of numbers and, next to it, show the running total of those numbers. You can use both positive and negative numbers in a running total, so if you like, you can put your sales and your withdrawals together. 

What is a running total?

A running total, or cumulative sum, is a sequence of partial sums of any given data set. A running total is used as a means of displaying the summation of the data as it grows over time. This very common technique is used daily by students and professionals who are tasked with using Excel to compute and calculate an array of complex data and equations. Additionally, having a running total can save you from having to take the time to record the sequence itself, if it's not vital to know the individual numbers being used.


How to create a running total in Excel

1. Start with =SUM.But instead of highlighting cells within the parentheses (by dragging the cursor over the cells you want to include in the equation) as you would if you were adding a column of numbers, you need to create what's called an "absolute reference," followed by a "relative reference." Don't worry; it's not as complicated as it sounds. The next step covers how to do it.


2. Create a running total formula. You must use the dollar sign in this formula, even if the numbers you're tallying are not dollar amounts. In our sample Excel workbook, let's say you want a cumulative total posted in column C. In cell C1, you would type =SUM($B$2:B2). This creates the necessary relative reference point (B2) and absolute reference point ($B$2) for your running tally. 

What are these references? Relative reference points are those that can change when you copy and paste a formula from one place to another. For instance, if you copy a formula two rows to the right, the relative reference point will also shift two rows to the right. Absolute reference points don't change when copied.



3. Click the bottom-right corner of the cell with the formula in it. Then drag down as far as you want the running total to apply. That's all there is to it.


What are some uses for a running total?

While this calculation may sound a tad complex, it is actually a rather common concept that many of us come into contact with regularly, regardless of whether we are the ones using it. Here are some of the uses for a running total:

  • Cash register operations. One of the most common examples of running totals that you are regularly exposed to involves the use of cash registers. In particular, cash registers display a running total of various products as they are scanned into the system. Additionally, they typically keep a running total of all transactions being made throughout the day.

  • Game scoreboards. Another common application of running totals is the scoreboards at sporting events. Although you see every point as it hits the board to understand how the end score is calculated, in the end, the final score is the only number that matters. Additionally, the game of cricket, in particular, is a great example of a running total. Each time a player scores a run, it is added to the total. Therefore, the total score is simply a running total or summation of the runs.

  • Sales positions. If you work in the sales sector, you are likely being exposed to a variety of running totals. For instance, if you have a quota, you may be using a running total to keep track of your progress until your quota has been reached.

  • S-curve plotting. Another common example of the use of running totals involves plotting S curves, or mathematical graphs that depict cumulative data related to the data being collected for a project.

  • Year-to-date calculations. One of the top uses of running totals is year-to-date calculations. For instance, you may see an array of year-to-date calculations on your pay stubs. This is an example of a running total because it keeps track of the various payments made and taxes collected to give you a final total at the end of each year. These final totals are then transferred onto W-2 forms and used for tax purposes.

  • Inventory totals. Another common use of running totals is the method a company uses to keep track of inventory. Given that companies must record the number of items sold and compare that number to how many items they have in stock, this is an example of a running total. For instance, if you sell cookies and have 1,000 in stock at the beginning of the week, each time a cookie is sold, it will be subtracted from the overall stock and then result in a new total after each transaction.

  • Balance sheets. If you have a job that uses balance sheets, this can also be an example of a running total. Balance sheets allow you to keep an itemized list of things such as expenses. After new items are added, you get a new total.

  • Bank balances. Your bank statement gives you an itemized list of what is being deposited and paid out every month. After each transaction, you get a new total. When you go online to view your account, you will see your running total.

  • Gas mileage. Ride-sharing companies and delivery services also employ running totals. Given that drivers are often paid by the mile, a running total keeps track of how much a person should be paid.

  • Calorie counts. Running totals can also be used to count your calories throughout the day or week. People who use a caloric count to lose weight can use an app or create a spreadsheet that allows them to input the calorie count of each meal to ultimately calculate days' or weeks' worth of calories.
Image Credit: AndreyPopov / Getty Images
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