How to Create a Waterfall Chart in Excel

How to Create a Waterfall Chart

Finance and banking professionals re­gularly work with complex numbers. To clearly show insights to clients and stake­holders, they nee­d a visualization tool that simplifies complexity. Mee­t the waterfall chart—a chart that demonstrate­s how an initial monetary value is affecte­d by a series of positive and negative changes, leading to a final result.


Wate­rfall charts have a history in finance of showing reve­nue breakdowns, expe­nse analysis, fund distributions and capital allocations. The key be­nefit of waterfall charts lies in the­ir ability to provide a picture of how a seque­nce of changes contributes to an ultimate­ monetary outcome helping de­cision makers quickly grasp complex data.

This blog post delves into the eleme­nts of waterfall charts and presents step-by-ste­p instructions for creating them using Excel. Additionally, we­’ll offer expert tips and re­al world examples to help you in your work.

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Understanding Waterfall Charts

Waterfall charts excel in illustrating the evolution of an initial value through successive changes, culminating in a final result. The changes are visually differentiated using color codes—increases are marked in green and decreases in red, with a final column summarizing the net effect.

Applications of waterfall charts include:

  • Financial statements: They simplify the visualization of net profit fluctuations due to varying revenues, costs, and expenses.
  • Inventory analysis: These charts are useful for monitoring inventory level adjustments over time.
  • Project progress tracking: Waterfall charts assist in overseeing project developments by depicting what has been completed, what is currently in progress, and what tasks are pending.

The foremost advantage of waterfall charts is their ability to provide a straightforward visual representation of sequential changes and their overall impact on a final figure. This clarity aids stakeholders in grasping complex datasets and making informed decisions based on the visualized insights.

Preparing Your Data

Before creating a waterfall chart, it’s essential to have a clear objective in mind. What story do you want to tell with your data? Once you’ve established your goal, you can start gathering and organizing the necessary data.

Waterfall charts work best with data with a starting point, a series of changes (positive or negative), and an ending point. For example, let’s consider the financial performance of a company over a fiscal year. The starting point would be the starting net income, followed by the various adjustments throughout the year, and finally, the ending net income.

Here’s an example dataset:

  • Starting Net Income: $5,000 (starting point)
  • Revenue Increase: $20,000
  • Cost Reduction: $700
  • Unexpected Expenses: -$300
  • Investment Gains: $400
  • Regulatory Fines: -$200
  • Ending Net Income: $7,100 (ending point)

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Waterfall Chart

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Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Waterfall Chart in Excel

Many popular spreadsheet and data analysis programs allow users to generate waterfall charts. The exact steps may vary slightly across platforms, but our example uses Excel due to its widespread adoption.

1. Input your data, with columns for the description (The type of financial adjustment or milestone) and value (the monetary impact of each adjustment (in $ thousands). Positive values for increases to net income, and negative values for decreases).

How to Create a Waterfall Chart - Step 1

2. Select your data and click on the “Insert” tab. Choose the “Waterfall” chart type from the “Charts” section.

How to Create a Waterfall Chart - Step 2

3. Adjust the data series to correctly display increases, decreases, and totals. You may need to use the “Switch Row/Column” option to format your data correctly.

How to Create a Waterfall Chart - Step 3

4. Format your chart by adding labels, adjusting colors, and choosing an appropriate chart title to improve readability.

How to Create a Waterfall Chart - Step 4

Build Complex Waterfall Charts Easily with Macabacus

Transform your data into appealing waterfall charts effortlessly with Macabacus Quick Charts. Skip the complex setup and dive straight into creating visually striking representations that bring your insights to life. Try for free.

Start your Free Trial

Advanced Tips for Effective Waterfall Charts

To make your waterfall charts more effective and informative, consider the following tips:

  • Handle negative values effectively by using a different color (e.g., red) to distinguish them from positive values.
  • Add subtotal columns for multi-category breakdowns to provide additional insights and context.
  • Utilize color coding to enhance understanding, such as using green for increases and red for decreases.
  • Incorporate interactive elements for digital presentations, such as tooltips and drill-downs, to allow users to explore the data in more detail.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

When creating waterfall charts, be aware of the following common pitfalls:

  • Mislabeling data points: Ensure that your labels accurately reflect the data being presented to avoid confusion.
  • Overcomplicating the chart with too much data: Keep your waterfall chart simple and focused on the most important information to maintain clarity.
  • Choosing inappropriate scales: Use scales that accurately represent the data and avoid misleading interpretations.

Illuminating Financial Insights with Waterfall Charts

For financial modeling and investment banking professionals, waterfall charts are indispensable tools that shed light on intricate data narratives. Let’s explore three scenarios where these visual powerhouses excel:

Scenario 1: Dissecting Corporate Financials

Imagine a corporation leveraging a waterfall chart to meticulously analyze its fiscal year performance. The opening bar represents the starting net profit, followed by a cascade of bars illustrating the impact of revenue drivers and cost components. The culminating bar unveils the final net profit figure, enabling stakeholders to pinpoint the critical factors influencing bottom-line health.

Scenario 2: Steering Large-Scale Projects

Envision a project finance manager navigating a multi-phase megaproject using a waterfall chart. Each phase is depicted as a bar, with completed stages in green, ongoing phases in yellow, and forthcoming milestones in gray. This comprehensive view empowers the manager and stakeholders to monitor progress, identify potential bottlenecks, and steer the project towards successful completion.

Scenario 3: Decoding Sales Dynamics

Picture a sales analytics team dissecting a year’s revenue data with a waterfall chart. The initial bar represents the starting revenue figure, followed by bars illustrating monthly fluctuations – green for increases and red for declines. The final bar consolidates the annual revenue, enabling the team to discern patterns, pinpoint seasonality, and evaluate the effectiveness of sales strategies.

Mastering Financial Visualization and Waterfall Charts with Macabacus

Waterfall charts are potent visualization tools that translate complex financial data into a lucid narrative. Microsoft introduced native waterfall charts in Excel 2016. The charts allow users to set individual colors and do not require additional calculations.

However, in Excel 2016, the native waterfall and other new types of charts were also buggy. They also lacked key functionalities, including the ability to export to PowerPoint or Word using add-ins such as Macabacus.

On the other hand, waterfall charts in Macabacus offer several advantages. They include being able to create an intuitive data structure without the need to identify totals, remember the last used colors and settings, and use better-looking, formatable connector lines.

Waterfall Charts From Start to Finish

Waterfall charts are a valuable data visualization tool for presenting complex data in a clear and concise manner. By breaking down the process of creating waterfall charts into simple steps and providing real-world examples, this blog post has equipped you with the knowledge and skills needed to create effective waterfall charts for your own data analysis projects.

Remember to keep your charts simple, accurate, and visually appealing to ensure your message is effectively communicated to your audience. With practice and by using Macabacus, you’ll soon become a master of waterfall charts and unlock new insights from your data.

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