Mike and Oz enjoying conversation and cigars

Mike and Oz enjoying conversation and cigars

My friend Mike asked, “is Excel for the common man?”

The answer is yes, but I had to find a good example for someone who’s recently retired and has no workplace need for Excel. But, wherever there’s data, there’s opportunity to use Excel. Wherever there’s data, a need to interpret the data, and something is at stake, Excel is preferable to pencil-&-paper.

Mike does some gardening and talks about it like it’s a bit more than a time-killer. It’s a fairly serious hobby. So, here’s a suggestion for Mike–and any other regular folks who have data.


The fundamental concept in working with data and Excel is to consider why the data is important and what information is useful. For a common gardener:

  • Plant names
  • Special considerations
  • Cost
  • Growth period
  • How much time before it’s too late to start a particular plant?
  • Level of difficulty
  • Notes describing tips, warnings or “NEVER try growing this again!”
  • Personal success or failure
  • If if it’s a plant that’s been tried before, what was the year/season/date planted

The Stakes: Wasted money, time and resources; and an unhappy retirement.


Let’s look at a list of 24 fake plants (I’m no gardener, and don’t want to be accountable for giving the wrong information about real plants). The details we’ll consider are Plant-by Date, Type of plant, Needs, and Maintenance.

Below is a live table, and you can click on the rectangle buttons to filter the information in the source data

For the common man, this tool is created with regular Excel features and embedded on a web page via ExcelWebApp.

  • The plant information is all in an Excel table.
  • Conditional formatting adds a yellow highlight to dates that are between Today and the # of Days Warning.
  • The # of Days Warning can be changed so that you can look into the future 1 day or up to 100 days.
  • Slicers let the user filter the plants based on criteria.
    • The image below shows the 3 plants that require extra space and have low or medium maintenance requirements. One Plant-by date is highlighted because it needs to be planted within 25 days of 17MAR15.
  • Excel 2013 feature of using slicers with tables. (Click to see a video on slicers with tables.)

Excel in the Garden

The next image shows all high-maintenance plants, automatically highlighting the 2 PLANTS that need to be planted within 55 days.

Excel in the Garden2

View the spreadsheet at Excel Online and download


aquarium fish

Bosemani rainbowfish and peacock eel in 30-gallon aquarium

Set-up an aquarium: This was one of my first uses of Excel. The spreadsheet included every fish species that was being considered, preferred water temperature, how big the fish would grow, aggression level, and whether it was best in a school or solitary. This helped me pick compatible fish and ensure that there would be adequate space long term.
Stakes: unnecessarily killing fish, wasting money, starting a new hobby with preventable frustrations.

Planning to buy a car. You can look at eBay auctions and gather: Car make and model, condition, mileage, asking price, selling price, sold by a dealer or private owner.
Stakes: paying too much.

Determine what beers you like and don’t like: Beer name, style, brewery, price, rating 1 (hated) to 5 (loved), reasons for your rating.
Stakes: wasting money on beer you don’t like, and missing ones that you might like.


Excel and data management are indeed useful for regular folks. These basic examples require very little Excel skill. The trick is in thinking about the why and what. It helps to also be willing to play with Excel, knowing that you can’t break it.

For those who are interested in developing solid Excel skills, your starting point could be something simple that you want to track, and growing from there. In Michael’s case, the example in this blogpost could be taken to extremes to include components for a

  • budget
  • tracking rainfall
  • calculations for optimizing use of his space with exactly the right plants
  • a precise planting schedule.

But Excel use needn’t be so complex immediately. Just start by looking for anything that would improve your life if you could compile data. Then, ask someone knowledgeable to help you get started.