Excel Is NOT a Database!

By | Nov 16, 2009

We all know what Microsoft Excel is.  It’s a spreadsheet software.  It’s not a database.  It’s never been a database.  It never will be a database.  Do I sound strident there?  GOOD!

Seriously, it’s not a database, folks, so please quit using it as one.  I can’t tell you how many places I’ve worked keep critical data in spreadsheets, jumping through all kinds of hoops and writing all kinds of code to get it to act like a database.  The employee hours they spend maintaining these spreadsheets and getting information back out of them just astounds me.  Why don’t they just convert it to a database and be done with it?

Why Businesses Don’t Use Databases

I’ve heard many excuses over the years as to why businesses use Excel over Access. Let’s debunk some of those reasons.

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Access Is Too Hard To Learn

It really isn’t, you know.  Most employees who interact with the database only need to know how to fill in a form or click on an already created report.  The only people who need any in-depth knowledge of Access are the ones who create the database and those who maintain the back end of the database.  And honestly, they need less in-depth knowledge than the person struggling with coding in Excel to try and get a spreadsheet to act like a database, and they don’t have to spend nearly as much time to manage the database.

We’ve Always Used Excel for This

So what?  You may have always used a hammer to crack nuts, but it doesn’t make it the best tool for the job.  If you’re working on the company financials, by all means, use a spreadsheet.  If you’re detailing your budget, of course you’ll use a spreadsheet.  But if you’re maintaining non-numerical data, use a database.  Actually, even most financial data is kept on a database these days (that’s what accounting programs are, they’re databases).  They simply export cumulative data to spreadsheets for special financial calculations such as projections and planning.

There’s Not Enough Data Here to Warrant a Database

How many times have I heard this?  And a year or three later, they’re still using that spreadsheet, only it’s grown to 10,000 rows and takes 5 minutes to open.  Unless you’re intending this spreadsheet to be a list of your 50 or so employees with phone numbers, you’re probably better off with a spreadsheet.  Although, even the list of employees could possibly grow exponentially, so scratch that idea.  Seriously though, if you think you’re just making a small list, go ahead and put it into a spreadsheet.  But if over time that list is growing unmanageable, then create a database and import your data from the spreadsheet.  It’s really simple to do and well worth the 5 minutes it’s going to take you.

Why You Should Use a Database

Here’s the nitty gritty of why you should use a database to store data and not a spreadsheet:

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  1. More than one person can update a database at a time. Only one person at a time can update a spreadsheet.  Right there you have an efficiency incentive to use a database.  And how many times has someone opened a spreadsheet in Read Only mode, saved changes to it to their harddrive, and then copied it back over the network copy, eliminating any changes the other person made *shudders*.  I’ve seen that happen a number of times over the years.
  2. A database stores information more efficiently.  Relational databases, such as Microsoft Access, uses tables to segregate data.  You’ll have one table for customer information, and another one for customer purchases.  These would be tied together via the customer ID.  So you don’t have to repeat all of your customer information for each purchase made.  Therefore, your database is smaller than your spreadsheet.  This is a crude example, but it gives you an idea how, overtime, your database is hugely more streamlined than your spreadsheet.
  3. Queries, and the reports based on those queries, are easier to write and run. Because your data is relational, you can mix and match and re-sort your data in all kinds of different ways.  You can do that with a spreadsheet, given enough time and code.  But with a database like Access, a person with relatively little knowledge can produce complex queries and reports.
  4. Data recovery is more efficient.  If you have a large amount of data, finding the particular data point you want can be especially difficult in a spreadsheet.  Those of you who work with large spreadsheets know this.  You get a spreadsheet with thousands of lines, and paging through the spreadsheet can slow to a crawl, especially if you don’t have an ultra-fast computer.

Just Say No

The next time your boss wants to use a spreadsheet for a project better suited to a database, just say no.  Explain why a database is better and get permission to use a database.  Like I said, Excel is a good tool for certain things, but it just isn’t a database.

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17 Comments so far
  1. Sabrina (5 comments) November 16, 2009 6:02 am

    I would also say that Excel isn’t a word processor either. You can not put 10 lines of text into every cell and expect it to print all on one page and be readable. Neither is Power Point!
    .-= Sabrina´s last blog ..I’m Hunting Wabbits =-.

  2. Jodith (189 comments) November 17, 2009 9:25 pm

    Exactly! The right tool for the right job.

  3. Richard Rinyai (4 comments) November 17, 2009 7:41 am


    It’s actually amazing of how many people still do use Excel as a database. I find Access much more powerful.

    It’s amazing of how many times people try to update an Excel spreadsheet at the same time as someone else is using it and they wonder why they complain.

    The only thing I don’t like about Access is people using it for CRM purposes. We use AdSystem for that. You can find it through http://www.datafest.com.


    .-= Richard Rinyai´s last blog ..Using Your Mail Trays Correctly =-.

  4. Tasi (1 comments) November 20, 2009 12:06 pm

    Love it! Jodith you are spot on. I love your perspective, intuitiveness and “straight-to-the-punch” writing style. You have a new student in San Diego. Cannot wait to read the rest of your blogs.

  5. Jodith (189 comments) November 22, 2009 1:28 pm

    Ummm….*looks around nerviously*….Thank you?

    *laughs* I never was very good with compliments. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog!

  6. Dewoun (3 comments) December 14, 2009 11:27 am

    This is a great article! My current employer wants to convert our database that has stored critical client information into an Excel workbook and he can’t understand why we can’t do this!!! I am printing this article and giving it to him!


    The Office Professionals Place
    .-= Dewoun´s last blog ..Take the “Jingle” out of Holiday Stress =-.

  7. Jodith (189 comments) December 20, 2009 7:53 pm

    Well, you *could* convert it to Excel, but why would you want to *boggles*. Managers like to have something familiar to work with, but usually have to be convinced they’re shooting themselves in the foot in the long run.

  8. trading system (2 comments) January 15, 2010 8:57 am

    I think that using a database is key in running a business and performing administrative duties. I think that most basic office programs are capale of handling this for any business

  9. Quickbooks Education (1 comments) January 19, 2010 3:36 am

    A database can be the most valuable assett a company owns. I am sure this has never been the case for a spreadsheet. Spreadsheets do help with mail merges but a good database will do this anyway.
    .-= Quickbooks Education´s last blog ..QuickBooks – Subaccounts =-.

  10. motocross suspension (1 comments) January 22, 2010 8:44 am

    I think that having organized reports in any form will help any size firm/company to be successful. These are some great ideas that you discuss. Thanks for the great insight

  11. Rosacea Acne Treatment (1 comments) March 23, 2010 4:38 am

    Spreadsheet and database programs are geared towards a different type of functionality, hence, there are good reasons for having both. It’s very important to know which tool is appropriate for your specific needs, or else your company runs the risk of suffering where it really counts, on the bottom line.
    .-= Rosacea Acne Treatment´s last blog ..How do I find the freezing point depression of a Naphthalene Solution? =-.

  12. Custom Motorcycles (1 comments) March 28, 2010 11:16 am

    The word “database” seems to scare many people for some reason.
    .-= Custom Motorcycles´s last blog ..2008/2009 Winter Streetfighter Motorcycle Buildoff part 1 =-.

  13. John (2 comments) March 30, 2010 1:12 am

    Ha Ha. I agree wholeheartedly. I like using both packages, however I know when access is established to your needs it is a very good tool. The challenge is convicting others. These tools are most commonly used in small business and therefore reliant on staff who often do a multitude of other tasks. Time of training we know is valuable ,though not always practical. I guess excel will remain as a pretend database.

  14. Jodith (189 comments) April 5, 2010 9:42 am

    Absolutely, John. People are afraid of what they don’t know. I recommend every assistant get at least basic training, and preferably some advanced training, in Access. It’s really a much simpler program than most folks realize.

  15. Julio (2 comments) February 22, 2011 12:06 pm

    Great article. It gives an inside as why not to use Excel like something it is NOT! a database… we usually try the path of least resistance and in this case Excel might be a bit more ‘friendly’ than Access; however, once a person has a decent level of confidence using Access, it will prefer it over Excel when handling large amounts of data. I also agree with John (fellow commentator) above, both programs should be readily available and should used to each of its individual full potential. I’m looking forward to read more articles like this. Thank you Jodith. May you have a good day.

  16. Norman (1 comments) February 14, 2015 4:21 pm

    I love Access and at each job I have had I was the first person to use it and have had to “sell it”, with varying degrees of difficulty, to my superiors (fortunately they have agreed).

    For people who want to find out more about relational database I very much recommend this free course in database fundamentals at the Microsoft Virtual Academy website:


    It doesn’t tell you how to use Access but it lets you know how the vast majority of modern databases work (these would be relational databases). I think getting to know the relational database concept will save you a lot of pain if you are building a database in Access from starch. Also don’t be afraid to use the templates that Access provides with the software they can save a lot of time and also be reverse-engineered.

    New to the blog and I think it is the best I have seen for advice to administrative workers. I also really love Jodith’s advice to new receptionists.

    Thank you for the wonderful blog!


  17. Jodith (189 comments) May 12, 2015 8:59 am

    Thanks, Norman. That’s a great tutorial explaining the workings of databases. If everyone understood databases better, people would use them more.

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