Understanding and Resolving Circular Dependencies in Excel: A Guide

Circular dependencies in Excel can be a real headache, but fear not, they’re not as scary as they seem. Essentially, it’s when two or more cells are dependent on each other for their values, creating a loop that Excel can’t solve. But don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. In just a few simple steps, you’ll be able to identify and resolve these pesky circular dependencies, making your spreadsheets run smoothly once again.

Step by Step Tutorial: Resolving Circular Dependencies in Excel

Before we dive into fixing circular dependencies, let’s understand what we’re dealing with. A circular dependency occurs when a formula in Excel refers back to its own cell, either directly or indirectly through a chain of references. This creates a loop, and Excel will give you an error message because it can’t calculate the values properly.

Step 1: Identify the Circular Dependency

The first thing you need to do is find where the circular dependency is in your spreadsheet.

Excel usually helps out by giving you a warning message that there’s a circular dependency. It’ll also show you the cell or cells that are causing the problem. Take note of these cells because that’s where you’ll need to focus your efforts.

Step 2: Examine the Formulas

Now that you know where the circular dependency is, it’s time to take a closer look at the formulas in those cells.

Look at the formulas in the cells that Excel pointed out to you. Do they refer to each other? Is there a chain of cells that keeps looping back to the start? Understanding the logic behind your formulas will help you untangle the circular dependency.

Step 3: Alter or Remove the Circular Reference

Once you’ve figured out the root of the problem, you need to break the loop by changing or deleting the formulas.

If the circular reference is unintentional, you might need to rewrite your formulas to avoid the loop. If it’s intentional (yes, sometimes they are necessary), you might need to enable iterative calculations, which allow Excel to handle circular references.

Step 4: Use Iterative Calculations if Necessary

For intentional circular references, you’ll need to switch on iterative calculations in Excel settings.

Go to File > Options > Formulas and look for the ‘Enable iterative calculations’ option. This tells Excel it’s okay to have circular references and sets how many times it’ll try to calculate the formula before giving up.

Step 5: Check for Errors and Recalculate

After making your changes, double-check your work and recalculate the spreadsheet.

Press F9 to force Excel to recalculate all formulas. Keep an eye out for error messages. If they’re gone, congratulations – you’ve resolved the circular dependency!

After completing these steps, your Excel spreadsheet should be free of circular dependencies, and all the formulas should work as intended.

Tips for Understanding and Resolving Circular Dependencies in Excel

  • Always double-check your formulas for accidental circular references.
  • Use the Trace Precedents and Trace Dependents tools to visualize the relationships between cells.
  • Remember that not all circular dependencies are bad – sometimes they’re used for specific calculations, like running totals.
  • Keep complex spreadsheets well-documented to avoid confusion and potential circular dependencies.
  • Don’t ignore Excel’s warnings about circular dependencies. They can cause significant issues if left unresolved.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a circular dependency?

A circular dependency in Excel occurs when a cell in a formula refers to itself or another cell that refers back to it, creating a loop that Excel can’t solve.

Why does Excel give me a warning about circular dependencies?

Excel gives you a warning because circular dependencies prevent it from calculating the values correctly, which could lead to incorrect data in your spreadsheet.

Can circular dependencies be intentional?

Yes, in some cases, circular dependencies are used purposefully for specific types of calculations, like iterative calculations that converge on a specific value.

What are iterative calculations?

Iterative calculations are settings in Excel that allow it to handle intentional circular references by repeatedly calculating the formula until it reaches a stable result or reaches the maximum number of iterations set by the user.

How do I enable iterative calculations?

To enable iterative calculations in Excel, go to File > Options > Formulas and check the ‘Enable iterative calculations’ option. Set the maximum number of iterations and the maximum change between iterations as required for your specific use case.


  1. Identify the circular dependency.
  2. Examine the formulas.
  3. Alter or remove the circular reference.
  4. Use iterative calculations if necessary.
  5. Check for errors and recalculate.


Circular dependencies in Excel can seem daunting at first, but with a little bit of detective work, they can be resolved quite easily. Remember to keep your formulas clean, document complex calculations, and always pay attention to Excel’s warnings. By following the steps outlined above, you can quickly identify and fix any circular references, ensuring your spreadsheets remain accurate and reliable. And remember, if you ever intentionally use circular dependencies, make sure to enable iterative calculations to avoid any potential problems. With these tips and tricks under your belt, you’re now well-equipped to tackle circular dependencies in Excel like a pro!