When a character is poor, there's no better way for him to say "I have no money" (due to Perpetual Poverty or a Broke Episode) than to have moths emerge from his wallet when he opens it. It's also the perfect way to show that a character with tons of money at his disposal is a complete skinflint. Alternately, the character can make a great show of pulling the pockets of his pants inside out (an act that might also be accompanied by the appearance of moths). Double points if the character does both.
For the most part, this is an Animation Trope, possibly because actors don't much like fragile flying insects in their pockets, though it isn't often used anymore even in cartoons. Little to no relation with Macabre Moth Motif and Moth Menace. Contrast Bat Scare, in which the startling appearance of flying creatures indicates a location is unexplored or abandoned. Compare Bankruptcy Barrel.
- Pokémon: Happens to Team Rocket regularly.
- Happens in an Ivy The Terrible comic strip in The Beano (with Ivy's dad pulling at his pockets).
- The Beano used it pretty much any time any character took out a wallet or otherwise searched for money. Unless their gimmick was being incredibly rich, of course; sometimes in this case moths would fly out wearing tiny top hats or carrying diamond rings.
- In one strip, a very dumb character has his skull X-Rayed. They see a moth instead of a brain.
- Disney Ducks Comic Universe: This is pretty much guaranteed to happen to Scrooge McDuck whenever he opens his wallet or change purse. Meant to indicate that because he is a miser, he opens his wallet very seldom. In one story, after the witch Magica DeSpell steals his purse and looks through it, a moth flutters out and thanks her for letting it free.
Moth: Oh, thank you madam! If it weren't for you, I feared I would never again see the light of the sun.
- Used to happen all the time in Archie Comics.
- Happens with Esther's phone in Giant Days.
- Gwenpool referenced the trope when telling MODOK why she absolute needs the next mercenary job.
Gwen: I tried to check my bank balance online, and instead it ran moth-escape.gif.
- In Cold Blood Hermione suggests that Fred, George and Neville spend the night at the Leaky Cauldron.
In reply, the twins turned their pockets inside out. Harry watched curiously for a few moments, before he had to ask.
"Did you put these moths in there, just in case, or is that one of your joke enchantments?"
- The Triplets of Belleville: Mme Souza, while trying to order a hamburger, opens her purse, only for a moth to fly out of it. When it lands on the smiling cashier's face, the cashier realizes that her customer has no money.
- Scary Godmother: When Harry the werewolf orders a few dozen pizzas to the Halloween party, Scary Godmother (understandably) looks at him expectantly. This is all they find, much to SG's annoyance.
- The opening of The Thief and the Cobbler has the Thief opening woefully poor Tack's wallet in his sleep, only for a few moths to fly out.
- It occurs during the "Rhapsody in Blue" segment of Fantasia 2000, to the man in the diner.
- In The Mask, the title character has a moth fly out of his pocket to show how poor he is.
- In the The Three Stooges short "From Nurse to Worse", Moe and Larry pry open Curly's money purse (that he keeps around his neck, hidden beneath layers of shirts), and moths fly out. Inside is a single moth-eaten dollar bill.
- Used as a plot point in the children's book McBroom Tells the Truth by Sid Fleischman: Josh McBroom buys a seemingly worthless farm for everything in his wallet, and when it turns out to be valuable land, the swindler who sold the land demands it back, saying that McBroom still owes him the moths that flew out when he handed over the money.
- Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has Tituss at the ATM. His balance is $2, which he opts to withdraw. The fee is $3. He accepts, and instead of getting his money, a receipt comes out informing him his new balance is negative one dollar.
- In one episode of The Muppet Show, when Kermit checks the theatre's cashbox, he comments, "Three moths and a washer... More than we usually have."
- In the VGA Quest for Glory I, if you look at your money pouch when it's empty, you may randomly get this message:
"A moth flies from your money pouch. That is all."
- In Tumblestone a moth flies out of the Goblin King's turned-out pockets.
- In the Mellow Brick Road music video by Pogo, the Scarecrow indicates his lack of brains by pulling off his hat and having a moth fly out. Not quite this trope, but clearly drawing upon the same imagery to indicate "empty."
- An episode of Woodworking for Mere Mortals starts with a skit made to look and sound like a silent film. A boy walks down a road and fails to find any money in his pocket. It being a silent film, we get a closeup of him pulling his pocket inside out to indicate this in lieu of any dialog. See it here.
- Uncyclopedia has a page advertising wallet moths.
- In DuckTales (1987), it's seen to happen in "Duckworth's Revolt". Duckworth relates his duties of the day to Huey, Dewey, and Louie, noting that he was due to dust off Scrooge's credit cards. Duckworth holds up Scrooge's wallet, and the viewer can see several moths fluttering out.
- Happens in SpongeBob SquarePants (which is strange, seeing as they are underwater and all...)
- The Tex Avery short Uncle Tom's Cabana (not to be confused with Uncle Tom's Bungalow, one of the Censored Eleven) has this with the protagonist's pocket.
- In even older cartoons (think Bosko or early Porky Pig) these came out of pantries to show how bare they were.
- Occurred once in The Simpsons when billionaire C. Montgomery Burns opened up his wallet.
Mr. Burns: Hmm... does anyone have change for a button?
- A variation occurred in the Arthur episode "Misfortune Teller," when Buster showed he had no money; in one of his pockets was a dead moth.
- Rocky and Bullwinkle does this in one chapter of "Box Top Robbery", where Bullwinkle happened to have one of them when he opened his wallet containing 27 cents.
- When Johnny Bravo does this in one episode, you can hear the moth say in a tiny voice: "I'm free! Free!"
- Camp Lazlo: When Scoutmaster Lumpus opens his wallet in "Prickly Pining Dining", a large cloud of dust escapes.
- Shown in The Smurfs episode "The Magic Earrings" when Gargamel tries to see how much money he has for a gift he wants to buy from a traveling salesman and finds out that he only has one penny.
- Occurs in the Mickey Mouse short The Nifty Nineties when Mickey takes out money for tickets to see a vaudeville show.
- In the Schoolhouse Rock short "$7.50 Once A Week" a moth flies out of the boy's pocket when he looks for money, not knowing he has already spent his entire allowance.
- A variant in the American Dad! episode "Dope and Faith", where a moth flies out of Stan's address book to discredit his claim that he has real friends.
- OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes: Parodied in "I Am Dendy"; K.O. tries to pull a quarter out of his pocket, but a few moths come out instead, and he cries out "NO! MY MOTH COLLECTION!"
- The Mighty Mouse short "When Mousehood Was in Flower" uses the old "moths flying out of wallet to indicate poverty" gag when Pearl Pureheart's father protests to Oil Can Harry that he's too poor to pay his taxes.